Rio Olympics 2016: China’s position in the medal tally has to be the biggest news from day one
Could this year's Olympics be the end of the Chinese domination in Olympic sports?
China has never finished outside the top three in the Summer Games since the Sydney 2000 Olympics. In the last Games at London, they finished second with an impressive haul of 88 medals with only 396 athletes. This after topping the Games they hosted with 100 medals with a naturally enhanced squad of 639. By comparison, their Athens 2004 effort was also commendable giving a return of 63 medals with 384 athletes participating.
So naturally, this time with a squad of over 400, the expectations were sky-high. However, if the first medals day results of Rio 2016 are any indicator, China’s supremacy in the Games seems to be under threat for the first time in two decades.
That they are lying 11th in the medals tally with no Golds to show at Rio, when at the same stage, and with the same set of medal events, they were topping the standings at London 2012 with four Golds, are by themselves sturdy indicative trends. By contrast, their rivals such as the Australia, US, Germany, Korea, Japan and even the much stressed Russia seem to be either improving or by and large holding on to their respective positions attained over the years. That in itself should send alarm bells ringing.
However, deeper introspection by China themselves should reveal a trend more disconcerting for their long term Olympic objectives.
Is the Assembly line beginning to show cracks? Have they also started to venture on the path of relying on legends than creating them through such global platforms? Is the rise of other Asian nations on the back of years of economic growth finally beginning to eat into China’s medals in particular?
Consider the first two Shooting Gold medals of Rio. One of them, the Women’s 10M Air Rifle has in recent times being giving out the first set of medals at a Summer Games. The other one being Men’s 10M Air Pistol. One of the two have been certain Golds for China over the last two Olympics. This time, they had those same Olympic champions of the previous Games looking to defend the crown. Twelve years is a long time to move on in international sport at this level.
It is almost certain that another of their dominant sports, Badminton, is likely to witness the same declining trajectory at Rio. They are repeating three of their Olympic and World Champions of now bygone Olympic eras to defend their much-coveted singles crowns. Their next in line seems to be lone warriors for some time now and the ‘hunting in a pack’ intimidating tactic seems to have been neutralised considerably by this.
The same two examples also point to the other trend, which will be of even more concern to Chinese sports administrators and officials. The Men’s 10M Air Pistol Gold went to Vietnam. In Shooting, there is a big chance that some other of their possessed Golds will be under attack from talented Thai, Indian, Iranian and Chinese Taipei athletes. Similarly, in Badminton, they are under serious attack from Talent from India, Malaysia, Thailand apart from their traditional regional rivalries with Japan, South Korea and nations of Europe. This talent is fresh and young and have almost no memories of China’s intimidating dominance of the sport in yesteryears. And therefore, they have no fear.
Swimming is the other sport where they had jaw-dropping performances very early over the past few Olympics, which helped them kick-start their medals and Gold count on an elevated footing. This time, they have been underwhelming in the pool as well.
So not only are they losing out on mass-medal events, they are losing out to economically smaller regional Asian countries - a lot of whom have been beneficiaries of a China fuelled growth, ironically, and there is no replacement supply line in sight.
China backers are well within their right to dismiss this argument as alarmist. But trends certainly point to that direction. Remember, China literally has no dominance in the other mass medal Olympic sports of Athletics and Gymnastics and even Boxing.
Certainly, these are early days and they might still just come back hard in the Games to put all speculations to rest. However, even if that happens, China would do well to guard against complacency and have a re-look at the long-term direction of their Olympic movement, which has been just three decades old, incidentally, and has never ever faced a crisis of sorts. If they drop out of the top four at Rio, it might just trigger the first.