No longer the same force?

No longer the same force?

Olympics : A significant drop in the number of gold medals at the Rio Games has triggered a debate in China

No longer the same force?

Even before the Olympic flame is extinguished in Rio de Janeiro, China is deep in debate about its showing in the Summer Games. Many Chinese are asking if the nation's once insatiable appetite for medals has hit a limit.

While it has often finished second in the games, China's number of gold and overall medals is down considerably, especially in some sports in which it has been strong, generating angst in a country that is used to viewing its medal count as a measure of rising national power.

For many athletes and fans in China, even the relatively minor slip in results has smarted.
 "We definitely did not perform our best," Liu Xuan, a retired Chinese gymnast who won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics, said in a telephone interview, referring to the gymnastic squad. She complained about the judges, but acknowledged problems with the team's preparations.

"They were so young and lacked experience in major competition," Liu said. "At the Olympic Games, even very small faults in moves can mean goodbye to gold medals."

Coming in second -- or third -- in the gold medal count would be a dream come true for many countries, especially poorer ones. But the discussion in China has reflected an ambivalent public that takes great pride in international sporting achievement, yet is no longer sure that medals are worth so much single-minded sacrifice from athletes and taxpayers.

Many people are also critical of the state sports administration, saying it has failed to adapt fast enough to a changing society, which is sending fewer children for the hard training needed to become Olympic champions, newspaper commentaries and experts have argued.

Chinese athletes have often come from small towns, where parents saw tough training in sports schools as a doorway to a better life for their children. But nowadays fewer parents want to wager their children's future on the distant hope of an Olympic medal, and administrators have not done enough to attract more children into amateur clubs and school teams, coaches and experts said.

"It's not like it was before," Li Guiqing, the head gymnastics coach at the Huangting Competitive Sports School in eastern China, said by telephone. "The spirit of being able to 'swallow bitterness' is not there anymore," she said.

As with overhauling China's economy, the question is whether President Xi Jinping's government is willing to push through potentially contentious changes that would loosen top-down controls and shed officials' jobs, David Yang, the editor of China Sports Review, a website based in Shanghai, said in a telephone interview.

"This result shows there needs to be reflection, but it's difficult to make the sports administration change itself," Yang said. "Until now, there's been a lot of shouting slogans, but not too much real action."

Susan Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who studies sports in China, said in an email that the Chinese had "acceded to the United States' superiority in sport for the near future, feeling that they have other things they need to correct before they can seriously take us on. I think the dip will continue for the near future," Brownell, who also studies the Olympics, added. "They really do have issues that need their attention -- general political reforms, the fight against corruption, the reform of the sport system."

Before the 2016 Games, some Chinese news reports predicted that the country's athletes could win up to 36 gold medals. Many foreign analysts forecast similar numbers. At the lower end of predictions, Gracenote, a sports and entertainment data company, predicted China would win 29 gold medals.

"I think China will finish second," said Simon Gleave, the head of analysis at Gracenote Sports, in a telephone interview from Nieuwegein, the Netherlands, on Thursday. He estimated that China could end up with 24 gold medals when the games finish on Sunday. It won 38 in London in 2012, well ahead of Britain.

"They still have a lot of events to come where they've got big favorites," he said, noting the strong Chinese competitors in canoeing and diving. "Great Britain is running low on gold medal chances."

Even so, some comments in state-run news media and internet forums have excoriated the Chinese team for failing to deliver medals.

"You kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to," Xinhua, the main state news agency, said on Twitter this week. (The comment was later removed.)

"Looking at the medal count, using the word trauma is not going too far," the China News Service, another state-run agency, said of China's results in gymnastics, a sport it has dominated in recent games.

In Rio, Chinese gymnasts have won two bronze medals. In London in 2012, they won five gold medals and 12 overall; in Beijing in 2008, 11 gold medals and 18 in total. Chinese athletes have also performed worse than in previous games in their other traditional strengths of badminton and swimming, said Gleave, the analyst.

China's medal shortfalls, Gleave said, "have been due to an underperformance in a limited number of sports. It's not as if the whole team is much, much worse," he said.

As if to counter public gloom, state-run news media have also argued in recent days that the Chinese no longer care about Olympic triumphs the way they did before, especially during the Beijing Games of 2008.

"There's definitely a change, a shift from the patriotic duty to bring honour to our country to a more relaxed and open attitude toward the Olympic Games," said Liu, the former gymnast.

Even with that shift, China appears far from over from its Olympic obsession. The authorities went to colossal expense to ensure a picture-perfect games in Beijing, and Beijing and a nearby city, Zhangjiakou, are preparing to host the Winter Olympics in 2022, despite having little natural snow.

Public ire after an Australian swimmer in Rio cold-shouldered his Chinese rival, who had previously served a three-month suspension for using a banned drug, also showed how much national pride remains at stake.

Chinese athletes are likely to feel pressure to improve for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. There is deep public rancor in China toward Japan, and the government has already demanded that China be at the forefront of the medal tally in Tokyo. That longer-term ambition may even help explain some of China's poor results in Rio, Gleave said.

"The participants that China has taken to Rio are quite a bit younger than they were in 2012 or 2008," he said. "That suggests to me that there is a level of planning going into this, leading up to Tokyo by giving younger competitors an opportunity."

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