There is less pressure on the country's athletes than beforeby Yuan Ren / August 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Fireworks explode over China’s National Stadium in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony ©AP/Press Association Images Read more: Can we trust Olympic athletes? China is not happy about its third place ranking in the Rio Olympics’ medal table. A look at the country’s media shows that the country is on edge—even experiencing angst—as a result of it. However, there is less nationalism than was witnessed during previous Olympic Games. In Beijing 2008 and London 2012 the Chinese public was obsessed with the tally of golds; “gold-losing athletes” were practically bereaved, and were berated for letting the country down. We obsessed about beating the United States—victorious uproars involving references to the “Century of Humiliation” erupted across a country hungry for glory and ascent. This year, despite China being in third place in the overall and gold medals rankings, people are not that bothered. Part of the explanation for that is quite simple: the Rio games are more removed in many people’s minds when compared to London and Beijing (well, of course). China had been hungry to host the Olympic Games for years—I remember waking up in the 90s and being told that “we didn’t get the Olympics” by my mother. I knew little about the world but the Olympics, well, they were important. But Rio is a long way away, and the city is not as famous as London is. Both the state and the public are less highly-strung now. In fact, news of an affair involving a big Chinese celebrity has received more attention than the Olympics this week. In this social media era, the younger generation is tuning into sports on their phones, and wang hong (online celebrity) culture has become a craze. Fu Yuanhui, a young swimmer whose exaggerated facial expressions received a lot of attention online (as did her comment that she under-performed in a race because she was on her period) is the latest wang hong: her every move—for the media—is gold. The athletes are under far less pressure than they were in Beijing in 2008. Athletes can now say that they are “satisfied” even if they didn’t win, or in the case of the world champion swimmer Ning Zetao, even reach the finals. In 2008 Liu Xiang, the only Chinese person to ever have won an Olympic gold in track and field (Athens 2004,) walked off the track due to a painful injury. The episode sparked national rage as well as mourning: Liu’s coach wept on his hands and knees and the athlete himself made a public apology at a packed, and tear-filled press conference. Rio in comparison is a walk in the park. The famous commentator Dou Wentao on his chat show Qiang Qiang San Ren Xing said that this cooler climate signifies that China no longer has anything to prove—that the age of expectations, of “up, up, and up,” just like skyrocketing GDP growth, is over. That China is comfortable with itself. Beijing spent $40 Billion on the Olympics, and that figure does not, of course, include that amount that was spent training China’s athletes. The chase to be selected as host city and for Olympic glory was long and drawn out. There was immense pressure. China needed to do well in Athens 2004 to set the stage for Beijing 2008, and again in London to prove that 51 gold medals wasn’t just “a one off.” But stretching the legacy of Neijing into Rio seems unnecessarily relentless, and no longer politically rewarding. So the pressure is off, and the media is striking a different tone. Media influence has great swaying factor for public sentiment, and this time around state-controlled media reports aren’t blasting Chinese athletes for their failures; newspapers aren’t stirring up nationalistic sentiment; some are openly taking pride in this change of attitude. China Youth Daily called the public “the most tolerant, least bothered about gold-medals, most entertainment-spirited viewers ever.” After two Olympics of anxiety and score counting it feels good to breathe—one friend said it’s just nice to be able to enjoy watching the games this time round. My parents’ generation may still see the Olympics as pertaining to glory, brought about by communist ideals of hardship and self-sacrifice. “My parents think the athletes are losing because they are young and haven’t trained hard,” says a 24 year old female friend of mine. We are what the elders call “the lazy generation,” addicted to online celebrity culture; but we’re also more sympathetic. The cooler air around Olympic viewing is also producing funny one-liners (see this video) from Olympic athletes. Plus, whenever patriotic sentiment needs an outlet, there’s always the South China Sea dispute. Whatever the explanation for the different mood in China, people in the country now seem to like wacky GIFs of athletes just as much as what hangs around the victors’ necks.