When seventeen-year-old Zhou Jun from Hubei province stepped onto the mat in London on Sunday, the pressure she was facing far exceeded the weight of the 96-kg barbell sitting at her feet. The entire history of China’s success in women’s weightlifting at the Olympics depended on her success.
That is, at least, how media outlets in China have retroactively framed the women’s weightlifting competition and Zhou’s subsequent defeat. After Zhou failed all three attempts at her first weight in the 53-kg division on Sunday, the headlines in China read: “Most Disgraceful Loss in China Women’s Weightlifting” and “Zero Success!” In its report on the event, kankanews.com wrote: “In this year’s London Olympic games, China made its first return to the 53-kg weight division [since winning gold in the inaugural event in 2000], sending the young competitor Zhou Jun to take on her opponents. But now, the Chinese team has shown that it has lost its superiority in this division, making it impossible to regain its glory from 12 years prior.”
The severity of the coverage speaks to a widespread belief that the performance of Chinese athletes at the Olympics is a measure of China’s national strength. But some netizens are taking to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blogging service, to speak out against the government and the media’s preoccupation with medal standings. “Who dares to say again that gold medals determine the humiliation of the nation or the athletes?” one user wrote. “Which idiot? Gold medals and sports are just entertainment. Don’t mix them up with the fate of the nation! The true test of a nation’s greatness is its system, and not its gold medal count.”
Much of the criticism has focused on the media’s choice to use the Chinese phrase chi ru, meaning shame, disgrace, or humiliation, to describe Zhou’s defeat. As one netizen wrote: “Corrupt officials escaping overseas, North Korea detaining and Russia shelling Chinese fishing boats, the shoddy construction of tofu buildings, the takedown of the Red Cross’ reputation … all these and I have never seen a Chinese media outlet call them chi ru?! Sure, one can get excited about an Olympic athletic competition and a game. But to call someone chi ru without reason—I wonder who the real chi ru is here!”
Coming up on this year’s competition, no doubt it had been impressed upon Zhou innumerable times that nothing less than a gold medal would be acceptable. Though women’s weightlifting is a relatively new Olympic sport, having been introduced in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, from the beginning China has asserted its dominance in the sport. In Sydney in 2000, the Chinese women’s weightlifting team swept all four events it entered. In Athens in 2004, the team won three gold medals, and at Beijing in 2008, they swept again, walking away with four gold medals, thereby cementing their status as the nation to beat in upcoming games.
Ahead of this year’s Olympic games in London, China was expected to uphold tradition and command the weightlifting medal standings. And in spite of Zhou’s setback, China’s medal machine has thus far continued chugging along in London, with women’s weightlifters Wang Mingjuan and Li Xueying winning gold medals in their respective events. In four years time, one hopes Zhou will be up there on the podium in Rio de Janeiro too, if only to quiet those ruthless, chi ru media critics.