Are Chinese Olympians Competing Against Colonialism?

In advance of the London Olympics, China’s sports authorities went out of their way to dampen gold medal expectations. Nonetheless, there were exceptions, foremost among them the assumption that gymnast Chen Yibing would repeat his 2008 win on the rings. So when, on Monday night, Chen took the lead with a lofty score of 15.800, everything was right in China -- but only briefly.

Moments after Chen's routine, Brazilian Arthur Zanetti gave a fine, but obviously flawed, performance. (Most notably, while Chen had a perfect landing, Zanetti stumbled on his dismount.) Nonetheless,  Zanetti earned a 15.900. The Chinese reaction online, as represented by hordes of furious microbloggers, was swift: China was not only robbed of its rightful gold, but the country was also disrespected by the biased Western authorities running the London Games.

In one sense, this reaction is little more than the predictable fury of sports fans wronged by a bad call in the age of the social-media echo chamber. After all, if English sports fans had access to Twitter when Argentina’s Diego Maradona scored his notorious "Hand of God" goal (in which he surreptitiously used his hand to guide the ball into the net) against them in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals, the service might have suffered an outage. To be sure, Chen's silver medal provoked some of this kind of fan outrage on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging site, with declarations of “August 6, 2012: a dark day in the history of gymnastics.”

But in another, very real, sense, the reaction to Chen's upset reflects a commonly voiced feeling among Chinese people -- and not just ardent sports fans -- that the London Olympics are a poorly-run charade that offers Western powers yet another opportunity to contain, and perhaps roll-back, China’s rightful place on the world stage. Perhaps not surprisingly, the legacy of English colonialism is regularly invoked, such as in this Wednesday morning tweet from a Sina Weibo user in Hunan province: “So far, the UK has given to us three things: the Opium War, the burning of the Summer Palace and the London Olympics.”

Nonetheless, despite the historical antecedents that some Chinese netizens see, most microbloggers frame their current complaints about these allegedly biased games in contemporary events, including, notably, China’s ongoing sovereignty disputes. On Tuesday morning, 12 hours after Chen’s loss on the rings, a Sina Weibo user in Zhejiang province tweeted:

During this edition of the Olympic Games we see that the Chinese people become more and more unpopular. It’s not just a matter of sports. Rather, it’s reflected in small things like the degree to which Hong Kong people despise mainland Chinese tourists and large things like the South China Sea conflicts ... we have a long way to go before we get the recognition of the leadership and people of other regions.

Complaints about a lack of Olympic respect for the Chinese first emerged in late July, after Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV reported that a Chinese-language sign in the Olympic media center requested that “Chinese journalist friends” respect the personal space of others. No such sign existed in other languages, Phoenix noted, as did many Chinese microbloggers, quickly making the matter go viral.

In the days since the Opening Ceremony, the list of slights has expanded rapidly (even as China has been quickly collecting medals). These include unsubstantiated suggestions that Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen benefited from doping during her world-record-breaking win last week, a cycling race in which a Chinese duo was demoted from first to second due to a technical violation, the notorious badminton scandal in which Chinese, South Korean and Indonesian duos tried to throw matches (and were subsequently disqualified) and a relatively minor incident in which ping-pong player Ding Ning was repeatedly reprimanded by an official for her illegal serves (in a match against another Chinese player, no less). Even Sun Yang, the Chinese swimmer who broke his own world record while winning gold in the 1,500 meter freestyle, has not escaped rumors of wrongdoing. These and other slights have been compiled, fumed over and much discussed among China's netizens. This tweet from a microblogger in Sichuan province, is highly representative of the genre:

You put up Chinese language insults for our journalists! Our poetic Sun Yang broke a swimming record, you called it into question! Our badminton doubles pair's use of tactics, you said was poor sportsmanship! Our cycling gold medal, you appealed for a penalty! And after her competition, after verifying that the umpire wrongly penalized Ding Ning, there was no apology! These are the London Olympics?

The “you,” in the case of this tweet, and others like it, are ostensibly foreign officials biased against the athletic prowess of China’s Olympians. But the critique extends much further. Foreign officials tacitly, and sometimes overtly, are thought to represent Western powers (specifically, London 2012’s British -- formerly colonial -- hosts), and China’s Olympians represent, well, China.

In this spirit, on Tuesday, Xinhua, China’s official state-run news agency published an editorial by three of its reporters headlined “Behind the Questions on Ye Shiwen." It cites Yi Jiandong, an official with the Beijing Sport University, an institution affiliated with the State General Administration of Sport, in its analysis of why media and officials aligned with foreign powers questioned the 16-year-old swimmer: "Yi Jiandong believes that the reason why Western media sources question Ye Shiwen is that they can’t bear China’s breakthroughs in the West’s traditional strengths. But the most important thing is that they cannot accept China’s rise. That’s why they criticize Chinese athletes."

Xinhua is an official voice, but it’s not difficult to find hints of the belief that (alleged) Olympic slights are just the latest Western front in the ongoing battle to keep China’s emerging power down. A Sina Weibo microblogger in Xi’an jumped online shortly after Chen Yibing’s silver medal and tweeted: "Why has China been discriminated against in the Olympics? The simple answer is, of course, that our nation's power is weak. The more gold medals you get, the more they discriminate against you."

Like many of his online and newspaper peers, the Xi’an microblogger connects China’s alleged Olympic humiliations with ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. It’s not a subtle or pleasant conclusion but is out of the mainstream only in its invocation of weaponry: "I think that putting a few cannons in the South China Sea and sinking a few ships would be better." That is to say, artillery might be a more effective means of establishing China’s position in the world than doing back flips off a couple of hanging rings.

Still, despite the over-the-top anger, sore feelings and rampant conspiracy-mongering, there is a silver, if not a gold, lining to the 2012 Games: China still leads the medal count (both gold and total). In addition, unlike the 2008 Olympics, when any failure would necessarily reflect badly on the host city and country, the 2012 Olympics provide China’s athletes, sports officials and fans with an easy excuse if they don’t equal their gold medal haul of four years ago: blame the British. Sure enough, Wednesday morning, netizens woke to find "#London, Please Explain#" trending on Sina Weibo.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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