2016 Rio Olympics Showcases a Changing China

2016 Rio Olympics came to a close last night. China ranked second to the U.S. in the number of total medals won while ranking the third in gold medals earned. This year’s Olympics proved different in a couple of ways for China and was direct evidence of change in the country since the London games in 2012.

Gold Medal Fixation, No More?

China won fewer gold medals in Rio than the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when it won 51. This time the Chinese return home with only 26 of them. Does it matter? It used to but now not as much.

China started to fix its “gold medal obsession” in early 2015 when the central government announced that it would stop rewarding local governments based on the number of gold medals the athletes from each province won at international competitions. Under this former incentive system, Chinese athletes were under tremendous pressure to win only gold, dismissing silver and bronze. Last year’s shift in policy may encourage more young people to simply participate in sports, first and foremost, and enjoy them rather than be pressured to do so by government officials who seek recognition and rewards often historically at the expense of many a child.

The interview of 20-year-old Fu Yuanhui, who won 100m backstroke bronze medal in Rio, went viral in China. When she found out that she earned a bronze medal she was thrilled and said, “I used my primordial force to win it. I am very pleased with the result.” Her attitude is so different from that of the silver medal winner Wu Jingbiao, the weightlifter, at the 2012 London Olympics, who broke down and cried in a national TV interview while saying, “I shamed my country, my team and all of those who cared for me.”

Traitor or Hero

The women’s volleyball gold medal at Rio Olympics means a lot to China. The Chinese team struggled most of the past 12 years and, as a result, turned to the “Iron Hammer” Lang Ping to coach the women’s team.

Lang Ping was a highly celebrated former player of the Chinese women’s volleyball team. Her powerful hitting won her the nickname “Iron Hammer”. In 1981, together with her teammates, the team brought home the first ever gold medal in China’s volleyball history. The gold medal went beyond a medal. Encouraged by their victory, the whole country was lifted up spiritually and strove to make China stronger and better.

She left China in the late 80s, studying overseas and coaching Italian and U.S. teams. Then a couple of years ago she was summoned back to help turn around Chinese women’s volleyball team and prepare it for the Rio Olympics.

While she was coaching foreign teams, esp. acting as the coach of the American women’s volleyball team in Beijing’s Olympics, many Chinese called her a “traitor”, accusing her of helping foreigners defeat her own people. After Rio, she is once again a super-hero.

With this medal, Lang Ping poses a challenge to the historically centralized sports system in China. Lang Ping’s contract with China will expire this September and what she does next will be more a function of her choice than her ceding to pressure from government officials of China to serve them and her country. After 8 years studying and working overseas, she has learned and appreciates that sports are not only a vehicle to serve one’s country and government officials. As importantly, she wants to live a life she chooses and not one chosen for her.

Author: Coco Kee, Managing Partner of KGA, twitter @keeglobal

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