China’s sporting success at Tokyo 2020 is tinged with politics
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China started the final day of the Tokyo Olympics with a slim lead at the top of the medal table, but attempts to stoke nationalist sentiment and use the event as a game of soft power ahead of the Games. Beijing winter next year threaten to undermine the boost reputation brought by its sporting exploits.
The Communist Party has built a formidable sports program around success at the Olympic Games, which it sees as an important source of national pride and international legitimacy. But China’s success in Tokyo has been accompanied by outbursts of nationalism and political demonstrations on the part of its athletes.
China has performed well in the sports it has traditionally dominated, including table tennis, diving, weightlifting, badminton and shooting. This was complemented by outstanding performances in events where he has not traditionally been strong.
Su Bingtian broke the Asian men’s 100-meter record with a time of 9.83 seconds and became the first Chinese national to compete in an Olympic final for the event. In the women’s quadruple-couple 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 ends the games with the most gold medals, it would beat the United States for the first time since 2008, at a time when it is embroiled in a tense diplomatic and trade dispute with Washington and its allies.
Political nuances were “inevitable”
Still, analysts said online nationalism, political demonstrations by Chinese athletes, and criticism of Chinese security crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong risked undermining the team’s athletic performance.
The International Olympic Committee issued a warning to China after Zhong Tianshi and Bao Shanju, who won gold in cycling, wore the insignia of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong during the medal ceremony, in possible violation of the rules. The IOC said it had received assurances that this would not happen again.
The Games also rekindled “the spirit of Japanese resistance,” a reference to China’s struggle against Japanese invaders during World War II, according to some online commentators. They were upset after an almost perfect performance by Xiao Ruoteng in the men’s general gymnastics competition was beaten by Japan’s Daiki Hashimoto, with allegations of anti-Chinese prejudice.
Susan Brownell, a Chinese sports expert at the University of Missouri-St Louis, said political nuances of the Games were inevitable given the convergence of damage to China’s reputation from the pandemic and its historic rivalry with Japan.
Some human rights groups have called on countries to boycott the Winter Games over China’s policies in Xinjiang, where it has held more than one million Uyghurs in internment camps, and the crackdown on Hong Kong following pro-democracy protests in 2019. The United States has said the issue is “on the agenda” in talks with its allies.
Brownell said officials in Beijing face a delicate balance at the national level, where Chinese sports programs have long been criticized for focusing on medals and political gains while ignoring physical activities for the masses.
“They have to be careful of anger at losses and nationalism, but there is also a problem if there is too much attention to winning medals,” she said.
China prepares for Beijing 2022
Beijing was determined to become a successful host of the Olympics after its bid to host the Summer Games failed following the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
When he hosted the Summer Games in 2008, much of the city was rebuilt, and everyone from taxi drivers to residents received lessons in civility. China topped the medal table for the first time that year.
As the party leadership gears up for Beijing to become the first place to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, it has struggled to ensure that enthusiasm for the Games stifles them. calls for boycott.
Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch activist and editor of China’s big leap, a book on the 2008 Games, said the pressure could lead Beijing to release political prisoners.
“There cannot be a double standard where China violates human rights, crushes press freedom and still hosts the Olympics as if nothing had happened,” he said. she declared.
Chinese state media focused on the displays of camaraderie between its athletes and their international competitors.
One of those moments was a happy hug between Chinese gymnasts Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing after winning gold and silver on the beam and was cheered on by US team 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, a women’s 10m air rifle champion, was criticized ahead of the event after posting photos of Nike shoes. Nationalists have targeted the US sports company for its statements about forced labor in Xinjiang.
But when Yang was asked what victory meant to her after the competition, she noted that 2021 was the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party and added, “I am so happy that this gold medal is a gift for my country.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing
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