The London Olympics are about to wind to a close. Watching the Olympics and China at the same time is always interesting. As usual, the country’s athletes have dominated this year, and they have been number one in the gold medal count nearly every day (though as I write this, China is actually down a few). And, as usual, Chinese nationalists are convinced that China is the victim of a vast conspiracy.
The events in question
This year, there seem to be four specific things the Chinese are upset about. Chen Yibing’s silver-medal finish in gymnastics, a US swim coach’s vague and unsubtantiated allegations that Ye Shiwen was doping, and the disputed disqualification of a Chinese biking duo and the less-disputed disqualification of a Chinese badminton team for losing intentionally along with teams from South Korea and Indonesia.
Of these, Chen Yibing’s silver appears to be the most questionable; or at least, appears to have been questioned most widely outside China. I’m not a gymnastics expert and I haven’t watched the competition, so I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. Perhaps Chen did get robbed. However, it seems unlikely that there’s a conspiracy afoot to rob Chinese athletes of gold medals in gymnastics. China has won four golds in gymnastics, more than any other country, and eight total medals, tied with Russia for first. (And with the subjective nature of gymnastics judging, if I were organizing an Olympic anti-China conspiracy, that’s where I would start).
I also know nothing about biking; that decision also dropped a Chinese team from gold to silver. Was that a bad call? The correct call? Corruption of some sort? I have no idea. But there’s certainly no evidence that it’s part of an anti-China conspiracy, unless you consider the fact that China didn’t win as evidence.
The American coach’s stupid allegations about Ye Shiwen were stupid (I think I mentioned that), but they certainly don’t evince a conspiracy to rob China of medals; the IOC does not rescind gold medals on the basis of what competing coaches say, and even Nature‘s much-criticized article on the issue says very clearly in the first paragraph that Ye has never tested positive for substance abuse, including in her post-race test. There was never any danger she would lose her medal, although the groundless speculation is unfortunate and US coach John Leonard should be disciplined and perhaps fired for making unsportsmanlike and unsupported accusations.
The Chinese badminton team’s expulsion is perhaps the least convincing of the “conspiracy” cases, given that the team turned in a performance so obviously bad that the crowd began to boo — not the sort of thing you see often during the Olympics. My understanding is that the Chinese team claimed they were sick after their disqualification was announced, which is a bit difficult to believe because of how they explained their awful performance before they were disqualified for losing intentionally:
“Actually these opponents really were strong. This is the first time we’ve played them and tomorrow it’s the knockout rounds, so we’ve already qualified and we wanted to have more energy for the knockout rounds,” said Yu.
“Really, it’s not necessary to go out hard again when the knockout rounds are tomorrow.”
A Note on Refereeing
So really, we’re just down to the Chen Yibing loss and the bicycling disqualification as signs of foreign foul play in China’s Olympic performances. Although I don’t claim to know the intricacies of reffing either sport, I will say this: as someone who has worked as a referee before, it is way harder than it looks. It is much easier to do from one’s couch while watching TV than it is to do in real life. Conspiracy seems far less likely to me than that the judges simply made mistakes.
Nor is getting screwed over by the refs solely a Chinese problem, although you would get that impression from some of the Chinese media. Chinese nationalists might ask Japanese boxer Satoshi Shimizu, South Korean fencer Shin Lam, the Spanish men’s water polo team, the South African field hockey team, Iranian boxer Ali Mazaheri, the Japanese men’s team artistic gymnastics team, South Korean judo wrestler Cho Jun-ho, and the Canadian women’s soccer team (among others) how they feel about the refs in their respective competitions. Sometimes, the refs screw up. It’s unfortunate, but the fact that it’s happened to China a couple times isn’t a huge surprise given that China has nearly 400 olympians playing in hundreds of different matches and competitions.
China is being robbed!
Nevertheless, these incidents have led to a lot of yelling on China’s internet and in the media about how the London Olympics are out to cheat China out of medals. According to the Global Times, a survey on ifeng found that 75% of respondents felt Olympic refs and judges were targeting Chinese players. The prevailing theory is, of course, that the West hates seeing China succeed (read some of those comments), with bet-rigging a in close second.
It’s not really clear who is perpetrating this conspiracy. “The West” is sometimes cited, as is America, London, the United Kingdom, and even the IOC. Why it would be so important to any of these people to screw China out of a few gold medals is also deeply unclear — is beating China in the medal count (which the US would have done anyway regardless of all the disputed events listed above) going to fix the American or European economies? Contain Chinese military expansion? Force China to adjust its trade policies?
If you ask supporters of the conspiracy theory this — why would anyone be intentionally sabotaging Chinese athletes? — the answer is generally just that “the West” wants to see China fail. After spending some time discussing this with a few of the nationalists who now follow me on weibo (because of this), I had a thought.
Obviously, China’s victim mentality remains extremely strong among some of its most ardent “patriots.” It seems sort of incredible to me that one can simultaneously be winning the Olympics (if that’s a thing) and complaining that the Olympics is rigged against you. It is, however, an offshoot of the idea that the government drills from time to time in its propaganda when it wants to stoke the fires of nationalism: ‘Remember what the foreigners did to us a hundred years ago? They’re still trying to do that.’
The fact that there’s no evidence of this doesn’t seem to matter at all. As far as I’m aware, aside from feeling like Chinese athletes should have won some events, there is absolutely zero evidence that those losses are connected to any foul play on the part of judges or anyone else, and even less (if that’s possible) evidence that any of this theoretical foul play is related to an anti-China bias. As I mentioned above, China is hardly the only country to be upset about aspects of the judging so far this Olympics.
More and more, though, I am struck by the utter arrogance that lies behind this perpetual-victim mentality. After all, if you assume that someone is out to get you, you’re making yourself the victim but you’re also assuming that they care enough about you to bother. Some Chinese nationalists — including popular media commentators — seem to hold the impression that everything “the West” does is related to trying to contain China in some way.
Of course, some Western governments — including my own homeland’s — certainly do plenty of things that really are aimed at containing China (see, for example, the much publicized “pivot” plan). But not everything that every foreigner does is driven by anti-China bias. In fact, my return to my home country last month has driven home for me a truth that some of my weibo followers would probably find unpleasant to the point of disbelief: most foreigners do not give a fuck about China. It’s not something that people think about during their day. It does occasionally become a hot issue in politics or the media, but generally those issues aren’t really related to China at all; China is being used as a comparison and a foil to reflect problems with America (job outsourcing, weak economic growth, terrible science education, general fat laziness, etc.).
The Olympics do have some symbolic value, of course, although I think Chinese people tend to take them much more seriously as a reflection of their nation’s status than anyone in the United States has since the miracle on ice. Even so, though, how inflated must one’s self-importance be to assume that any questionable call in a sporting event is a hostile geopolitical act?
(I must pause here to say that I do realize — and embrace — the irony of a not-everything-revolves-around-you lecture coming from an American. Yup, America is just as bad if not worse.)
So seriously, enough of the Olympic conspiracy bullshit. In their accusations of foul play, Chinese commentators are being just as wrong-headed and foolish as John Leonard was when he accused Ye Shiwen of doping. Leonard had no evidence to back up his accusations, just a feeling that in the American loss, something unfair had happened. China has no evidence to back up its conspiracy theories either, just a feeling that China didn’t get gold in a few events where it feels it should have. Maybe those events were unfair, but biased? There’s no evidence of that. Unfair officiating
The whole point of the Olympics is for everyone to come together in a spirit of sportsmanship, forget all the politics, and enjoy the thrills of competition at the highest levels of athletics. But despite the fact that China’s athletes have achieved remarkable things this games and racked up yet another incredible gold medal count, China seems determined to pout about the London Olympics. It’s not so much that China still wants to be the victim. It is still, I think of remnant of the old imperial center-of-the-universe mentality: the fact that we are a victim is just further evidence that ultimately, it’s all about us.