LONDON (AFP) –
China played down the frantic drive for gold medals and focused on “Olympic spirit” and sportsmanship at a London Games marked by an unusual bout of soul-searching.
Four years after cleaning up with 51 golds in Beijing, China’s tally dropped to 38, surprisingly leaving them second behind the United States on the medals table.
But chef de mission Liu Peng called the results “satisfactory” — and praised China’s non medal-winning athletes for showing the Olympic values of fair play and sporting behaviour.
“This is as glorious as winning a gold medal,” he said.
While China’s exploits were avidly followed at home, there was also debate over its relentless pursuit of Olympic glory.
Revelations that champion diver Wu Mingxia was not told about her grandparents’ deaths, or her mother’s cancer, for fear of disrupting her training, prompted concern over China’s state sports system.
When star athlete Liu Xiang limped out of the 110m hurdles for the second Games running, there were comments — often on China’s Twitter-style messaging sites — that he had been worked too hard.
And Liu Peng admitted that China could learn from other countries in how it manages and trains its sportsmen and women.
“We must learn from other countries in terms of the management and training, further explore the scientific base,” he said.
“We must continue to promote the sporting spirit of the Olympic Games, to make the Olympic Games a whole-country event in order to strengthen and promote the health level of the population of China.”
China swept the badminton and table tennis, and won all but two of the diving titles, while their weightlifters reached the top step of the podium five times.
But breakthroughs in swimming, sailing and race-walking showed China was expanding from its traditional sports. And with 23 first-time gold medallists, a new crop of winners was successfully unearthed.
“We are moving towards the goal of becoming a strong sporting nation. We have made good achievements in terms of the sustainable development of Chinese sports,” said Liu.
When top badminton players Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli were disqualified for trying to lose a group match, to secure an easier quarter-final, China leapt on the scandal as a chance to show its commitment to fair play.
“This delegation at the very first minute showed our principles and we also criticised this misbehaviour,” said Liu. “We also told all the athletes to take this as a warning.”
China lost ground in shooting, where they claimed two titles, and notably gymnastics where they fell from seven gold medals in 2008 to just three in London.
But they had their best ever swimming performance when Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen, aged just 16, claimed two gold medals and a world record each for a team haul of five titles.
China’s joy at the breakthrough into a mainstream sport was quickly tempered by doping innuendo levelled at Ye, after her lightning 400m medley win set tongues wagging at the Aquatics Centre.
“Western writers have demonstrated an arrogance and prejudice against Chinese athletes,” thundered the People’s Daily, a government mouthpiece.
Liu also hit out at the media coverage of Ye, and said China’s athletes had been at pains to play fairly and sportingly.
“When they win they are not too proud, and when they lose they are not too disappointed,” he said.
“They observed the rules, respected the spectators and respected the referees. They are really from a civilised country with politeness and enthusiasm.”