CHINA put a brave face on their worst Olympics for 20 years, but they will work hard to make sure they aren’t embarrassed again in 2020, when the Games are hosted by arch-rivals Japan.
A third-placed finish on the medals table below the United States and Great Britain made for a sobering Games after China triumphantly topped the standings at Beijing 2008 and finished second in 2012.
“You kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to,” spluttered the official Xinhua news agency, in a tweet that was later removed.
As well as their lowest gold medals tally (26) since Atlanta in 1996, China were also left smarting on a couple of occasions during the Rio games.
Australia rebuffed China’s demand for an apology after Mack Horton called swimming rival Sun Yang a “drugs cheat”, an incident which prompted a furious response from Chinese media and web users.
Later, China complained, again to no avail, after the United States were allowed to re-run their women’s 4x100m heat, knocking the Chinese team out of the event and eventually winning gold.
A Xinhua commentary said the rerun was against the “Olympic spirit of fairness” and was “widely regarded as ridiculous and unfair”.
Liu Peng, head of China’s Olympic committee, said China would learn lessons from Rio, when rising standards in other teams had taken them by surprise.
Tellingly, China brought a large but youthful team, with an average age of 24, the lowest of the past three Olympics.
Of the 410 athletes, the most China has ever taken to an Olympics away from home, 73 percent were at their first Games, Liu said.
It points to a rebuilding phase ahead of Tokyo, the capital of the former Asian colonial power which still evokes bitter resentment among many Chinese.
“We have trained these [young] athletes but the training isn’t enough,” he said.
“Because when these athletes are facing fierce competition and challenges, they have too much to think about and too many mental burdens and they didn’t play at their highest level.”
China won only one medal in swimming – down from five in 2012 – and two in badminton, after they swept all five titles in London.
They remained dominant in table tennis and won seven gold medals in diving, but even there their rivals seemed to be closing the gap.
In gymnastics, where China won four gold medals in London, they won none at all in Rio, prompting comments from the sport’s boss that China need to move with the times.
“They’ve remained trapped in a robotic style of training,” FIG president Bruno Grandi told AFP.
China’s silver lining came in the behaviour of their athletes, who revealed an unusual human side and won new fans at home and abroad.
Swimmer Fu Yuanhui shone through with her warm personality and honesty, even to the extent of talking about her period, while Qin Kai proposed to fellow diver He Zi as she stepped off the Olympic podium.
Official media also made great play of China’s surprise win against Serbia in women’s volleyball on August 20.
“Today, the Chinese need the fighting spirit of the women’s volleyball team more than ever,” Xinhua said in an editorial.
“As individuals, living in a time of drastic change with both opportunities and challenges, one needs the spirit to go sure-footed and step by step to reach afar.”
“To be a champion, more than a champion! May the fighting spirit of the Chinese women’s volleyball team be always with us,” the editorial added.
Residents of Mangueira favela watch fireworks over Maracana Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on August 21.