For China, the Olympics are more than a game

Chinese supporters look towards The Orbital during the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England. China's government sees winning gold medals as a key affirmation of the country's worth. Athletes who don't come first can get a frosty reception.

Tess Vigeland: The sport of badminton doesn't often make international headlines, but it certainly did this week. Four doubles teams were expelled from the Olympics for throwing their matches. One of those teams was Chinese. They intentionally lost their match so that they wouldn't have compete against another Chinese team.

Why? It's all about how many medals China can get. Yes, if you thought America was obsessed with the medal count -- especially the gold medal count -- let us introduce you to China.

Here's our Shanghai Correspondent Rob Schmitz.


Rob Schmitz: China’s obsession with gold medals goes back to Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984. The country was competing for the first time in three decades. Chinese high jumper Zhu Jianhua was widely expected to win the gold.

He won the bronze.

He came back to China to find the windows of his Shanghai home smashed by an angry mob.

Adam Minter: The government has been explicit that Olympic success will be a proxy for national success.

Shanghai-based author Adam Minter wrote about Beijing’s gold fever this week in his column for the financial news service Bloomberg. He says for China’s government, winning gold medals is kind of like hitting GDP targets: get it done, then let the state media spread the propaganda. 

Minter: They don’t really know how to cover the Olympics except to cover them as a projection of national power, so you still have this almost reflexive instinct to only show gold, only show that China’s first and China’s doing really well.

Chinese TV coverage includes a global gold medal tally ticker. China, of course, is number one. And want to watch events like sailing? Sorry. In China, you’re stuck watching skeet shooting, archery, 10-meter air rifle -- events where China’s expected to win the gold.

So how much pressure does this put on Chinese athletes? On Monday, Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao broke down, cried, and apologized for his poor performance during a live interview with state broadcaster CCTV. He said he was ashamed for disgracing the motherland. He then bowed deeply to the camera.

Wu had just won the silver.

On the street here in Shanghai, 30-year-old Hu Ronghua says it’s a shame about all this pressure on Chinese athletes.

Hu Ronghua: For most Chinese people, it doesn’t matter whether our athletes win gold medals. For me what’s important is the spirit of the games -- competing and participating.

As for the government’s gold fever? Hu thinks Chinese officials should instead focus on building more sports facilities for the people, so that non-Olympians like him can play, too.

In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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