China’s sporting success at Tokyo 2020 is tinged with politics

Tokyo Olympics updates

China started the final day of the Tokyo Olympics with a slim lead at the top of the medals table but attempts to whip up nationalist sentiment and use the event as a play for soft power ahead of the Beijing Winter Games next year threaten to undermine the reputational boost provided by its sporting achievements.

The Communist party has built a formidable sports programme around success in the Olympics, which it sees as an important source of national pride and international legitimacy. But China’s success in Tokyo has been accompanied by bursts of nationalism and political displays by its athletes.

China has performed strongly in sports that it traditionally dominates, including table tennis, diving, weightlifting, badminton and shooting. This has been supplemented by breakthrough performances in events where it has not traditionally been strong.

Su Bingtian broke the Asian record in the men’s 100-metre competition with a time of 9.83 seconds, and became the first Chinese national to compete in an Olympics final for the event. In the women’s quadruple sculls rowing event, China won the country’s first gold since the Beijing Games in 2008 and broke the world record by more than a second.

If China finishes the games with the most gold medals, it would beat the US for the first time since 2008, at a time when it is engaged in a tense diplomatic and trade dispute with Washington and its allies.

Political undertones were ‘unavoidable’

Yet analysts said that online nationalism, political displays by Chinese athletes and criticisms of China’s security crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong risked undermining the team’s sporting performance.

The International Olympic Committee issued a warning to China after Zhong Tianshi and Bao Shanju, who won gold in cycling, wore badges of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong during their medals ceremony in possible contravention of rules. The IOC said it had received assurances that it would not happen again.

The Games have also re-awoken the “spirit of Japanese resistance”, a reference to China’s fight against Japanese invaders during the second world war, according to some online commentators. They were displeased after a near-perfect performance by Xiao Ruoteng in the men’s all-round gymnastics competition was beaten by Japan’s Daiki Hashimoto, with some alleging anti-Chinese bias.

Chinese cyclists Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi were warned after wearing badges featuring Mao Zedong, a potential breach of rules over political displays at the Olympics © REUTERS

Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sport at the University of Missouri-St Louis, said the political undertones of the Games were unavoidable given the convergence of China’s reputational damage from the pandemic and its historic rivalry with Japan.

Some human rights groups have called for countries to boycott the Winter Games because of China’s policies in Xinjiang, where it has detained more than 1m Uyghurs in internment camps, and a clampdown on Hong Kong following pro-democracy protests in 2019. The US has said the question was “on the agenda” for discussions with its allies. 

Brownell said officials in Beijing faced a delicate balancing act domestically, where Chinese sporting programmes have long been criticised for a single-minded focus on medals and political gains while ignoring physical activities for the masses.

“They have to be careful about anger at losses and nationalism but there is also a problem if there is too much attention on winning medals,” she said.

China prepares for Beijing 2022

Beijing was determined to become a successful Olympics host after a failed bid to host the Summer Games in the wake of the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in June 1989.

When it held the Summer Games in 2008, much of the city was rebuilt and everyone from taxi drivers to residents were given lessons in civility. China topped the medal table for the first time that year.

As the party leadership prepares for Beijing to become the first location to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, it has struggled to ensure that enthusiasm for the Games drowns out calls for a boycott.

Journalists at the National Ski Jumping Centre, one of the venues for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games © AP

Minky Worden, a campaigner at Human Rights Watch and editor of China’s Great Leap, a book on the 2008 Games, said the pressure could lead Beijing to release political prisoners.

“There can’t be a double standard where China gets to violate human rights, crushes press freedom and still hosts the Olympics as if it was business as usual,” she said.

Chinese state media has emphasised the displays of camaraderie between its athletes and their international competitors.

One such moment was a joyous hug between Chinese gymnasts Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing after they won gold and silver in the balance beam and were cheered on by the US team’s Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee.

Despite their success, some Chinese athletes have been hit by nationalist attacks if they have been seen as disloyal.

Yang Qian, champion in the women’s 10m air rifle, was criticised ahead of the event after posting pictures of Nike shoes. Nationalists have targeted the US sports company over its statements about forced labour in Xinjiang.

But when Yang was asked what winning meant to her after the competition, she noted that 2021 was the centenary of the Chinese Communist party and added: “I’m so happy that this golden medal is a gift to my country.”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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