China’s Olympic Fetish for First

With 42 medals, 20 of them coated with those much coveted 30 carats, China is just behind the U.S. for first in the overall and gold medal counts at 2012 (as of August 3, 14:00 PST). In China, there has long been a philosophy viewing medals as worthless if they aren’t received on the highest podium. This belief was seen when a teary-eyed Wu Jingbiao apologized for “disgracing the motherland” after taking silver in the men’s 56kg, when a multiple medal winning diver’s parents withheld news of a family death until she secured another gold, and again in the strategic race-to-the-bottom badminton qualifying matches that enraged spectators. This fetish for first has been a hot topic in Chinese media, and a major point of debate online. Looking at shooting, the event that won the PRC its first gold medal in 1984Caixin explains how corporate awards are one factor driving China’s infatuation with gold:

As one of China’s major athletic clothing brands and long-time sports sponsor, Li Ning knew the rules and understood the impact of the Olympics. Li Ning placed a permanent marketing representative on the shooting team in case they did well early on in the Games. Once Du Li and Zhao Yinghui won the shooting championship to become the first winners of the Beijing Olympics, they would wear Li Ning’s special Dragon uniforms and soon after be awarded 1 million yuan.

Other companies have been spending huge money on sponsorships as well. In 2008, Skyworth spent hundreds of millions of yuan on the shooting team. Wuliangye announced that whoever won the first gold medal would get a 10 million yuan award. The rest of champions would get 1 million.

No one would have thought that the commercial value of the medals could be categorized in such a way. People in marketing circles describe this style of marketing gamble as a double-edge sword. In order to get a foothold, almost all sponsors pour their resources into certain athletes with the hope that he or she will win first. If it works, the gamble will be a big boost to the company image. If not, it will be a waste of money.

The offers two more perspectives. The first justifies this obsession from a historical point of view:

There are historical reasons why China attaches great importance to gold medals.

China was known as “the sick man of Asia,” torn by war and poverty. Liu Changchun, who was the first Chinese to participate in the Olympic Games in 1932, was sponsored by the warlord Chang Hsueh-liang as the first representative of war-torn China.

[...]China didn’t win its first Olympic medal until 1984. It is understandable that China puts such weight on gold medals.

[...]

The second Global Times article focuses on how this trend is slowly changing to reflect the wants of the Chinese public:

The media’s recent shift of focus from gold medalists to silver and bronze winners is also influenced by public preferences. As China’s strength in Olympic events grows, gold medals can no longer bring the public the excitement they used to.

And since China has now passed many symbolic milestones in its nation building efforts, winning gold medal is no longer that significant to national pride.

The gold medal fever has started to cool in our society. This is exactly why both new and traditional media are beginning to pay more attention to silver and bronze winners.

For Bloomberg, Adam Minter has more on the history and changing tides of China’s gold medal mania. His article explains how Web 2.0 is dissolving the state media’s monopoly of opinion and empowering those who think of this obsession as ridiculous: 

Most remarkably, China’s microbloggers have started condemning state media and others who criticize the country’s athletes for not earning gold. A notable opportunity came on Sunday when the City Times, an obscure newspaper in Yunnan province, declared that Zhou Jun, a 17-year-old weightlifter from Hubei province, was a “disgrace” who had brought “shame” on China’s weightlifting team when she failed at her first three attempts in the women’s 53 kg weightlifting competition. Her performance was labeled a last-place “DNF” — or did not finish. Even if the failure was worthy of being labeled a “disgrace,” China’s microbloggers were quick to note, the fault was not Zhou’s but rather that of an incompetent local sports bureaucracy that chose to send her to the Games before she was ready.

[...]“In today’s world, nobody will show more or less respect to the Chinese on the basis of how many gold medals they earned in the Olympics,” tweeted a self-identified nuclear scientist in Sichuan Province. “I don’t care about Olympic gold medals, either, because I know they’re irrelevant to our national power, the people’s daily life and their health.”

The Wall Street Journal’s China Realtime Report has more on netizen response to official media condemnation of Zhou Jun and Wu Jingbiao:

[...M]any defended Ms. Zhou. “She is only 17 years old. How can you say she is a shame? What were you doing when you were 17? Compared to her, you were nothing!”said one user of Sina Corp.’s microblogging service

[...][Wu Jingbiao's] tears triggered sympathy online.

“You don’t need to apologize. You are our hero!” said one Weibo user in China’s southern Guangdong province.

“This goes against sportsmanship.” said another.

Also see a video from BBC World News examining China’s obsession with taking home the gold, and the rest of CDT’s coverage of China at the 2012 London Olympics.