Tokyo Olympics Updates
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China started the final day of the Tokyo Olympics with a small lead at the top of the medals, but attempts to stir up nationalist sentiment and use the event as a soft power game in the run-up to the Beijing Winter Games next year threaten to undermine its reputation boost by its sporting achievements.
The Communist Party has built a formidable sports program around Olympic success, which it sees as an important source of national pride and international legitimacy. But China’s success in Tokyo was accompanied by outbursts of nationalism and political displays by its athletes.
China has performed strongly in sports it has traditionally dominated, including table tennis, diving, weightlifting, badminton, and shooting. This was complemented by groundbreaking performances at events where it was traditionally not strong.
Su Bingtian broke the Asian record in the men’s 100 meters with a time of 9.83 seconds, becoming the first Chinese national to compete in an Olympic final for the event. In the women’s double sculls rowing event, China won the country’s first gold since the Beijing Games in 2008, breaking the world record by more than a second.
If China finishes the Games with the most gold medals, it would defeat the US 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 undertones were ‘inevitable’
Still, analysts said online nationalism, political displays by Chinese athletes and criticism of China’s security crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong could undermine the team’s athletic performance.
The International Olympic Committee has warned China after Zhong Tianshi and Bao Shanju, who won gold in cycling, wore insignia of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong during their medal ceremony, possibly in violation of the rules. The IOC said it was assured it would not happen again.
The Games have also awakened the “spirit of Japanese resistance,” according to some online commentators, in reference to China’s struggle against Japanese invaders during World War II. They were displeased after Xiao Ruoteng’s near-perfect performance in the men’s all-around gymnastics competition was beaten by Japan’s Daiki Hashimoto, with alleged anti-Chinese bias.
Susan Brownell, a Chinese sports expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the political undertones of the Games were inevitable given the convergence of China’s reputational damage 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 detained more than 1 million Uyghurs in internment camps, and a crackdown on Hong Kong after pro-democracy protests in 2019. the agenda” for talks with its allies.
Brownell said officials in Beijing were faced with a delicate balancing act domestically, where Chinese sports programs have long been criticized for a resolute focus on medals and political gain, while ignoring physical activity for the masses.
“They have to beware of anger about losing and nationalism, but there is also a problem if there is too much focus on winning medals,” she said.
China prepares for Beijing 2022
Beijing was determined to become a successful host of the Olympics after failing to host the Summer Games in the wake of the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
When the Summer Games were held in 2008, much of the city was rebuilt and everyone from taxi drivers to residents was taught courtesy. China topped the medal table for the first time that year.
As the party leadership prepares for Beijing to become the first venue to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, it struggles to ensure that enthusiasm for the Games drowns out calls for a boycott.
Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch campaigner and editor of China’s Great Leap, a book on the 2008 Games, said the pressure could push Beijing to release political prisoners.
“There cannot be a double standard where China is violating human rights, crushing press freedom and still hosting the Olympics as if it were business as usual,” she said.
Chinese state media has emphasized the displays of camaraderie between its athletes and their international competitors.
One such moment was a joyful hug between Chinese gymnasts Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing after they won gold and silver on the balance beam and were cheered on by Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee of the US team.
Despite their success, some Chinese athletes have been hit by nationalist attacks when they were considered disloyal.
Yang Qian, the women’s 10m air rifle champion, was criticized ahead of the event after posting photos of Nike shoes. Nationalists have attacked the US sports company for its statements about forced labor in Xinjiang.
But when asked after the game what winning meant to her, Yang noted that 2021 was the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, adding: “I am so happy that this gold medal is a gift to my country.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing
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