Flawed Flags and Dueling Swimmers Make Waves

Flawed Flags and Dueling Swimmers Make Waves

China’s early medals at the Rio Olympics have been overshadowed by a series of issues, including this vexillological vexation:

The somewhat subtle problem is that the smaller stars sit squarely rather than turning to face the larger one. If the graphical lapse alone were not enough, this design detail is laden with political significance: the smaller stars represent the four classes defined by Maoism, while the larger one represents the Communist Party. Their relative orientation therefore symbolizes the unity of the people under Party leadership. While the misprinted flags were probably not intended to subvert this order, the error is especially unfortunate at a time when state media and other official voices resound with accusations that foreign powers are trying to overturn Party rule. These warnings may have contributed to the finding of an unscientific online poll of the Chinese-language Global Times’ nationalist-leaning readership, that 64% believed the mix-up was an intentional slight.

The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong reported on the mistake, reactions to it, and the search for blame:

“Some attentive web users have discovered that the five-star red flag used at this Olympics appear problematic,” state broadcaster China Central Television said on its official Weibo microblog. “The national flag is the symbol of a nation! No problems are permissible!”

CCTV’s comments drew more than 93,000 “likes” from Weibo users, some of whom criticized the Olympic organizers for perceived sloppiness. “This Olympics are the worst I’ve ever seen,” a user wrote.

[…] It wasn’t clear who produced the erroneous flags, though CCTV said last week that “all the national flags that will be hoisted during the [opening] ceremony are made in China,” as part of a report asserting that Chinese-made products “will be an integral part of the Olympics.”

[…] A Chinese state-run newspaper, however, quoted the Rio Olympic Committee as saying that all flags used at the games had been approved by the respective national Olympic committees. “The Chinese flag was approved by the Chinese Olympic Committee,” People’s Daily said, citing comments from the Rio committee.

[…] During Friday’s opening ceremony, Australian broadcaster Seven Network accidentally displayed the flag of Chile instead of China’s when representing the Middle Kingdom on a list of participating nations, drawing derision from Chinese viewers down under. [Source]

Seven Network’s error came with Sino-Australian tension at the games already stirred up by a clash between two of the two nations’ champion swimmers. From Xinhua:

China’s Olympic swimming team has demanded an apology from Australian gold medallist Mack Horton after his “malicious personal attack” on rival Sun Yang.

Horton described Sun as a “drug cheat” last week and refused to retract the comments after defeating his rival in the 400m freestyle final at the Rio 2016 Games on Saturday.

“We have been noticing what has been said in the past two days by Horton, who launched a malicious personal attack [on Chinese swimmers],” Chinese swim team manager Xu Qi said on Sunday.

“We think his inappropriate words greatly hurt the feelings between Chinese and Australian swimmers. It is proof of a lack of good manners and upbringing. We strongly demand an apology from this swimmer.” [Source]

Sun won the 200m freestyle gold on Monday, but lost to Horton in the 400m freestyle.

Australian chef de mission Kitty Chiller has stated that “we have no intention of making an apology.” Horton has also received support from teammates and other athletes including French swimmer Camille Lacourt, who finished fifth in the 100m backstroke. Lacourt said that Sun “pisses purple,” and that the sight of him atop the 200m freestyle podium made him “want to be sick.” (He added that “I don’t like being beaten by a Chinese,” referring to backstroke silver medalist Xu Jiayu.)

Global Times’ Yang Sheng described the Chinese internet as “overflowing with anger and patriotism” in response to Horton’s remarks, adding that “web users in China have also accused Australian media of stirring up emotions with biased reports.”:

On Horton’s Instagram account, Chinese netizens demanded an apology for his “arrogance and unfounded slander.” Some called him a racist.

[…] In 2013, six swimmers on the Australian team were sanctioned for use of a sedative, Stilnox, ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. The drug had been banned by the Australian Olympic Committee some months before, and the six were warned that further breaches would see them ruled ineligible for selection for Rio, ABC news reported.

Chinese netizens’ fury is not because Horton beat Sun, but because of his arrogant comments beforehand, said experts.

He Lingnan, deputy chief of the big data and communications lab at Sun Yat-sen University in South China’s Guangdong Province, told the Global Times on Sunday that the Australian media reports typify foreign media prejudice against China.

“Recently, Chinese fans and people are becoming increasingly confident and broad-minded about the results in the different competitions,” He said, rejecting articles from Australian media that claim Chinese were furious because of Sun’s defeat. [Source]

Horton apparently disabled comments on his Instagram account, while at least one innocent bystander was caught in the crossfire:

Official media also participated in the the campaign against Horton and his motherland. As The Washington Post’s Emily Rauhala reported, for example:

Though an op-ed in the Global Times certainly does not represent the views of China’s people or government — the paper is known for trolling [see a recent CDT post] — the tone of the commentary echoed an explosion of angry online commentary.

[…] Despite its extensive coverage, the Global Times closed its Australia-bashing op-ed by insisting that China should not care about the likes of Horton, or rate the opinions of Australians in general.

“It’s not a big deal to us,” the piece concluded. “In many serious essays written by Westerners, Australia is mentioned as a country at the fringes of civilization. In some cases, they refer to the country’s early history as Britain’s offshore prison. This suggests that no one should be surprised at uncivilized acts emanating from the country.” [Source]

The editorial was part of a barrage of critical articles about Australia from state media, including another broadside against the “smug Aussie swimmer” and his “trifling botheration” and fresh criticism of Australia’s stance on the South China Sea from Global Times, and an accusation of a “cold-war mentality toward Chinese investment” and challenge to Melbourne’s status as the world’s “most liveable city” from Xinhua.

At least some voices in China counseled calm. Alongside its aggressive editorials, Global Times reported comments made on WeChat by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences research fellow Yang Zao: “Chinese people are too sensitive, and we can’t take everything to a patriotic level and ask others to apologize when individual Chinese have disputes with the outside world.”

CDT cartoonist Badiucao responded to the broader indignation by Photoshopping a scene of Horton confessing his crimes on state broadcaster CCTV. This refers to a series of televised confessions including some by those accused of undermining China’s political system on behalf of foreign powers.

#BreakingNews! Mack Horton, the Australian swimmer who insulted Sun Yang, is confessing via Skype on CCTV News! Here’s a screenshot:

Criminal suspect Horton: “I am very sorry for hurting the glass hearts of the Wall Nation’s people.”

Western nations are constantly plagued with disaster. Badiucao is China’s most brilliant cartoonist.

Badiucao was by no means the most prominent critic of the massed calls for an apology:

As for the basis of Horton’s accusations, although Sun has admitted to consuming trimetazidine, he claims to have done so to treat a heart condition, based on out-of-date information about its legality. (Trimetazidine had only recently been added to the list of banned substances, and has since been removed.) News.com.au’s Marnie O’Neill examined the case, along with allegations of Sun’s disruptive behavior at training events, under the Global Times-ianly delicate headline “Is Chinese swimmer Sun Yang a drug cheat or just a jerk?” At The Diplomat, meanwhile, Shannon Tiezzi asked why many are so ready to believe the worst of Chinese athletes, concluding that the answer lies less with racism than with political mistrust, and with the Western perception of the Party as “opaque, dismissive of international rules, and obsessed with international prestige (including in sports).”

This obsession was a focus for Suzhou-based sports journalist Wang Jingjin who, writing at Sixth Tone, sought to explain why many Chinese seem so prone to complaining about the Rio Olympics:

The lead-up to the Beijing Olympics was a grand affair. It was as if we were showering a beloved with countless luxury gifts to win affection, which ultimately culminated in a deluxe wedding ceremony and five-star hotel reception. The energy and passion that went into the conception and execution of the games was immeasurable, which is why the Rio Olympics — marked by social unrest and inadequate preparations — felt like a personal affront to Chinese people.

There were only two ways of concealing this embarrassment. The first was to admit that China had overemphasized the importance of the Olympics — that what we had treasured was just average in everyone else’s eyes. Obviously, we couldn’t do this: we would look foolish.

The other was to moan about everyone else, making them the fools instead. Hosting the Olympics is an honor: we treated them with respect, and so should you.

[…] We are moaning about a lack of seriousness from other host countries, but the reality is that we took it too seriously. The world was left bewildered by why we felt the need to pull out all the stops and throw a huge wedding bash for what was simply a one-night stand.

We Chinese care too much about face, meaning we are overly preoccupied with holding our heads up high when facing the rest of the world. We achieved it at the Beijing Olympics, and we’ve never been able to get over it since. [Source]

On the other hand, both South China Morning Post and Global Times reported that China’s former fixation on gold medals has now subsided, as “its people no longer need to use sporting prowess as a means to boost national confidence.”

Elsewhere, CCTV narrator Bai Yansong ignored the delegation from the Philippines during the opening night’s Parade of Nations in an apparent snub over recent arbitration against China over the South China Sea. Prominent marks on the body of mass medalist Michael Phelps from a traditional Chinese therapy may offer a soft power boost even if there is “absolutely zero evidence that cupping has any kind of positive role in medicine.” And Sun Yang has not been the only Chinese swimmer in the spotlight:

Read more on Fu’s winning charm and “mystic powers” at What’s On Weibo.



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