HONG KONG — Despite China’s extraordinary success at the London Summer Olympics, some Chinese fans can’t quite shake the feeling that the world is tilted against them.
In a recent editorial for the state-run Global Times headlined “Rules Are Just Another Tool of Global Games,” a university professor decried the anti-China bias allegedly visible throughout the Olympics.
He pointed out that while two Chinese badminton players were disqualified for deliberately losing — along with four Koreans and two Indonesians — a British cyclist was allowed to keep his gold medal after admitting he crashed on purpose in order to restart a race.
As a result, he wrote, China should “wake China up from the blind obedience of international rules,” and seek to exploit them for its own gain — including in realms outside sport, such as the South China Sea.
“In fact, outside the Olympic Games, China is also challenged by many other international issues such as the Diaoyu Islands dispute, that will require a new understanding of international rules.”
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While his conclusion is a bit extreme, the sentiments are not unusual. Across the Chinese media, critics have dwelled on moments when Chinese competitors — whether in swimming, cycling, or gymnastics — were denied gold, or subjected to skepticism about doping.
One online survey from the Chinese news site Ifeng.com found that three quarters of roughly 300,000 people surveyed felt that referees have been harsher on Chinese athletes. Over 90 percent of roughly 300,000 people surveyed felt that the Chinese gymnast Chen Yibing, nicknamed the “King of Rings,” had been unfairly treated when he received a silver instead of the gold.
So despite all its success, why is the feeling of victimhood so common? For some, it stems from the perception that for all the gold medals China has won since 2008, it has not received commensurate respect.
“In today’s world, nobody will show more or less respect to the Chinese on the basis of how many gold medals they earned in the Olympics,” one nuclear scientist wrote on Weibo, as translated by Adam Minter.
But for many others, the international platform of the Olympics has simply touched off perennial anxieties about China's image, its society, and its stature in the world. In this way, though its medal count is almost as spectacular, China's Olympics experience in London has differed dramatically from Beijing in 2008. Whereas the Beijing games saw China announcing its arrival at the highest rungs of the world stage, London 2012 games have seen the country wrestling more visibly with doubts and insecurities, as well as its swelling national pride.
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Chinese media repeatedly struck the theme that the West is coordinating against China’s economic as well as Olympic might. The Guangming Daily connected the struggle of Europe and America after the financial crisis to the games:
“Swimming is traditionally dominated by powers like Europe and the US. Now China is suddenly making a strong impact,” the editors write. “When they see they are losing their advantage in traditionally dominant areas, they start to question irrationally.”
Qu Xing, director of the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times that "it's unavoidable that we will encounter jealousy and even unexpected obstructions during the process of rising, as is the case in other fields."
One widely distributed blog posting went so far as to compare the London Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Olympics attended by Hitler, concluding that it was aimed toward the "soft encircling of China."
This blurring of geopolitics and sports is underscored by the outsized role that the Chinese state plays in its athletes’ lives. While the United States Olympic Committee receives no government funding, Beijing spends heavily to produce its stars. In 2000, it launched “Project 119,” which aimed, successfully, to cultivate world-class athletes in medal-rich sports.
But many within China are questioning this system, and its single-minded focus on winning gold. After their short-lived careers, many athletes have struggled. Nearly a quarter million former athletes are now unemployed or otherwise struggling, according to Chinese reports. And two former Olympic champions, Ai Dongmei and Zhang Shangwu, were found to have sold their medals to support themselves.
As a result, on microblogs and elsewhere in the Chinese media, some Chinese are debating whether it is time to stop investing so much national pride--and shame — in the outcome of what are, at the end of it all, just sports games.
"It’s very tiring to watch the Olympics with a victim mentality," sighs one editorial in China Youth Daily. "Sports are not war."