Chinese newspaper Global Times confidently claimed on the verge of the opening of the Rio 2016 Olympics that Chinese would get 30 to 36 medals. It is now day 12 and China have 17 golds while Team GB have 19 golds.
Since 1984 when China made their Olympic debut they have amassed over 200 golds and have never finished below the UK in the medal rankings. They might still pip Team GB to second place but now it looks impossible to make the 30 gold mark. The humiliation of falling so short and possibly not even making second place is something Chinese media has been trying to manage.
One approach has been to recycle the common Olympic mantra that it is the taking part that matters; showing spirit. State media CCTV has run lengthy stories about r Ygor Coelho de Oliveira from Brazil and Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte who have become crowd favourites despite being very much off medal winning form.
This approach might be in line with Olympic rhetoric but does not sit easily with the nationalistic fervour that the state has been fomenting for over a decade. This generation of Chinese have invested a lot in the notion of Chinese superiority in terms of sport, culture and economics. They cannot be so philosophical as to believe that the taking part is enough. They are baying for success, and when it is not forthcoming they turn to spite. On Twitter Chinese people have been blaming judges for poor decisions. They are even blaming Rio. How a city is responsible for China underperforming is unclear.
It is not just the poor medal count, it is also the fact that Great Britain with a population tiny compared to China is beating them that really hurts. Being beaten by a capitalist country who kept Hong Kong for over a century is hard to swallow for those used to seeing the continual triumph of the Chinese communist party, the continual upward swing of prosperity and economic might.
People in China need to un-brainwash themselves if that is possible. The achievements of Chinese athletes are theirs and theirs alone; it reflects their ability and prowess, not the might of a nation.
What the diminishing medal return demonstrates is the rocky transition China is undergoing from state sponsored sports training to private training. The same dip was experienced by Russia and in particular East Germany. While communism’s record for helping relieve poverty and inequality can be questioned, the ideology’s success in nurturing sport talent for propaganda purposes cannot be doubted.