Sports

The Cost of Losing an Olympic Medal for China's Athletes

It's not all fun and games.
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A few minutes after Hidilyn Diaz’s historic gold medal finish at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a picture started circulating on social media that became the center of much ridicule: a shot of her opponent, China’s Liao Qiuyun, with a dissatisfied expression on her face with a silver medal around her neck. 

Some were quick to mock her displeasure, not realizing just how complicated the Olympics is for China’s athletes, plenty of whom are plucked from their hometowns while they were just children and then ushered into training with one mission in mind: winning. There are plenty of documentaries that depict the unforgiving and brutal life of Chinese Olympic hopefuls.

China has long been obsessed about being the best: look at the West Philippine Sea, their manufacturing industry, their trade. It’s no secret it wants to topple the U.S. as the world’s biggest superpower, and that mentality, which is rooted in its Maoist past, is best displayed through sports. China is one of the Olympics’ powerhouses, and weightlifting is just one of their domains.

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But in 2020, two countries (China would contest that Taiwan is a country) dared challenge them for the gold—and win. The Philippines’ Hidilyn Diaz in the women’s weightlifting 55-kg class, and Taiwan’s Kuo Hsing-chun in the women’s weightlifting 59-kg class.

For China’s weightlifting team, this was a severe blow, and while we don’t regret Diaz’s victory for one second, we certainly offer sympathy—and sportsmanship—to Qiuyun, another pawn in China’s great Olympic game who reportedly had to rely on a journalist to send her a message from her parents back home.

The shot of Liao with her silver medal sends a stark image, one that makes you wonder what awaits her back home. A few minutes after losing to Diaz, cameras caught the normally Spartan Liao in tears, breaking down in the arms of her coach. When she faced the Chinese reporters, they too felt what she was feeling, even comforting her and reminding her that a silver was still a job well done.  

On her injuries, Liao was candid: “They’ve been there for years,” she said to The New York Times. “Over and over again.”

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China’s treatment of its athletes comes to light at a curious time. Earlier this week, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles backed out of the games for her mental health, which put the spotlight on the intense pressure put upon Olympians. Biles’ decision was a statement: mental health cannot be ignored in sports. History has proven this to be true. In the 1980 Olympic Games, Soviet Union gymnast Elena Mukhina was pressured into a jump she did not want to do, but was pushed by her coach to do the now-banned move anyway. She broke her neck and was paralyzed for the rest of her short life.

Other Chinese athletes who failed to medal have been on the firing end of social media. Air-rifle athlete Wang Luyao became the target of bashers from her own country who considered her a disappointment after she failed to win a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This isn’t an isolated incident. In 1988, gymnast Li Ning also failed to win and received hate mail. In 1984, high jumper Zhu Jianhua achieved a bronze finish instead of a gold, and had his home’s windows smashed and blades sent in the mail.

Meanwhile, Japanese gymnast Daiki Hashimoto was the victim of a troll army after beating Chinese favorite Xi?o Ruòténg in the Individual all-around male gymnast’s medal ceremony.

The Olympics has long been an event intended to advocate sports, athletes, and even world peace, but for some athletes of certain countries, it’s no longer fun and games.

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Felix Herrera
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