Medal fatigue for China stars
For China, the weight of all that gold is starting to show.
Moments before hurdler Liu Xiang launched himself from the starting block, China's state broadcaster focused in close on the Olympic favorite as the announcer intoned, "Liu is not as perfect as he used to be."
What happened next encapsulates the staggering pressure and scrutiny China's athletes face as they try to feed their nation's ravenous appetite for Olympic gold. Liu—one of the nation's most celebrated athletes—stumbled on the first hurdle a few seconds into the 110m hurdles, removing him from competition. To disappointed fans back home, it was a heartbreaking repeat of his performance four years ago in Beijing, when he withdrew early due to injury.
China has had a stellar Olympics so far, thanks to unexpectedly strong performances in sports such as swimming. The Chinese delegation warned at a press conference before the Games began that it calculated it could medal in 32% fewer events in London than it did in Beijing, when it won 100. But with five days to go in London, China already has 73 medals—three more than the US.
Tuesday's events showed how China's athletes are feeling the pressure. Beyond the disappointment with Liu, China also broke its gold streak in diving, as He Chong, the reigning Olympic champion, and Qin Kai won silver and bronze medals in the 3m springboard event.
After Liu's failure earlier in the day, China's Internet exploded in disappointment, sympathy—and more than a little anger. "Liu Xiang, you are such a disappointment," said one poster on China's Sina Weibo microblogging service.
China's state-run media and his teammates defended Liu, who won China's heart in the 2004 Games with a surprising gold-medal performance. The Xinhua news agency called him "Brave Liu."
But the crankiness back home could increase in coming days as the Olympic Games heads into events such as track and field, where China hasn't traditionally been strong.
Despite tremendous pride in China's slim lead over the US, the success has sparked debate over the pressure China's results-driven sports system puts on winning.
That system picks athletes at young ages, grooming them for Olympic gold at national training centers, often far away from their families. Qin, the diver, said he started training at age six. "Sometimes, I get to see (my family) every other year. If the competition schedule is not that tight, maybe sometimes I can spend a whole week with my parents in a year," he said.
"Every athlete has some pressure," Qin said. "If you want to be really good, then you have to be able to hold that pressure to perform."
Last week, 23-year-old weightlifter Wu Jingbiao publicly apologized, bowing in front of the television cameras, for bringing home a silver, not gold, medal. "I feel terribly sorry for my country, China's weightlifting team and everyone that supports me," Wu said, fighting back tears.
"It is not the barbell that overwhelmed Wu, but a world of difference in terms of treatment toward gold medal winner and that of silver medal," said the Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper in China's southern Guangdong province.
An editorial written this week in the state-run China Youth Daily newspaper called for change, saying leaders have hammered hard for medals in pursuit of global recognition that could have been earned in other, more socially beneficial ways. "Even from the standpoint of sports fans, we are more concerned with public affairs that affect our happiness," the China Youth Daily editorial said.
China's medals success has helped buy legitimacy in the Chinese public for the government's Project 119, a strategy developed more than a decade ago to dominate gold medals by investing in sports such as swimming and track and field.
It's not yet clear whether China's performance in London might speed up or slow down changes to its centralized, medals-focused sports system.
Li Ming, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University, says that there may be a time when the gold-medal winners of today inspire future ones who will grow outside China's current system, which relies fully on government funding to produce its Olympians. Citizens are growing wealthier and are increasingly taking up hobbies, such as fencing and equestrian sports, Li said.
But the Beijing Daily defended the state-run sports system, saying "this is a system that suits China's current national situation and based on China's culture and traditions. Criticism of this system is in essence criticism of China."