China arrived in Rio with big expectations. Its 711-member delegation included the largest squad of athletes ever sent abroad. Swimmer Sun Yang was a national celebrity on the edge of becoming a hero. The woman’s gymnastics team looked militaristically efficient. The country still dominated fringe events like shooting. Then the Games began.
So far the thrill of athletic competition and rising medal counts has been replaced by a wave of controversies. China’s state-run media and internet users are consumed by anger and frustration. The story dominating Chinese social media over the past two days? The best way to disparage Australia.
After swimmer Sun Yang finished second to Australia’s Mack Horton in the 400 meter freestyle, Horton repeated his comments that Sun was a “drug cheat.” Earlier in the week Horton had referred to Sun, saying he didn’t have “time or respect for drug cheats.” The two-time gold medalist Sun tested positive for a banned stimulant in 2014 and served a light three-month suspension. The Chinese authorities didn’t release news of the suspension until months later, after Sun competed in the Asian Games in September 2014.
Thousands of Chinese protested on Horton’s Instagram account. A typical reply read, “You showed no respect for the Olympic Games … your mouth is dog s—. Apologize to Sun Yang.” There were tens of thousands more posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and WeChat.
The social media vitriol gained steam throughout the weekend.
China’s press got into the act today. The state-run Global Times levelled attacks on the character of Australia. “In many serious essays written by Westerners, Australia is mentioned as a country at the fringes of civilization,” it said. “In some cases, they refer to the country’s early history as Britain’s offshore prison. This suggests that no one should be surprised at uncivilized acts emanating from the country.”
China’s Olympics frustration started even before Horton beat Sun for a gold medal.
On the first day of the Games, a 19-year-old West Virginia University student won gold in the 10 meter air rifle event, leaving China’s shooters to silver and bronze. Nor were China’s other great performances enough.
In women’s gymnastics qualifying yesterday, the Chinese team put together a spectacular team score early in the day, only for the U.S. team to pass them by 10 points later in the afternoon. The margin between the U.S. in first place and China in second was larger than the one between China and 12th place Belgium.
Even though China was second in medal count by the end of day three, only trailing the U.S. by four total medals, the Chinese Internet was filled with anger and it didn’t show signs of ending.