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Doping Allegations, Flag Blunders and Medals: China’s Experience During Week 1 of the Rio Olympics

Sun Yang shaking hands with Mack Horton
Fencer Lei Sheng leading the Chinese delegation into the stadium at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony (Michael Sohn/AP)

Fencer Lei Sheng leading the Chinese delegation into the stadium at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony (Michael Sohn/AP)

We have reached the halfway point of the 2016 Rio Olympics and despite it not being the best of games like in previous periods, there has never been a dull moment. China, once again, has been showing that it is a force to be reckoned with as it has collected its fair share of medals and broken a couple of records along the way.

However, it has not all been rosy for Team China as strong allegations of doping, especially among swimmers, has led to a war of words among the Chinese and Australian swimming federations, and heated debates and outlandish comments on the internet. There has also been allegations of unfair judging from officials at competitions. To top it all off, the controversy over the errant Chinese flag sent blood pressures rising and organizers scrambling for answers.

But it has not all been bad news as China introduced to the world a bubbly swimmer who was not even considered a favorite to win a medal and a form of traditional Chinese medicine that has been trending since photos of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps with red spots on his shoulder circulated around the web.

Here are some of the top stories involving China after the first week of the Rio Olympic Games.

But before going there, here are a few things that happened before the action officially got underway.

Welcome to hell

One of the issues many have talked about in the lead up to the Rio Games has been security. While the larger threat of terrorist attack has always been taken seriously, there has also been the concern over threat of crime from drug gangs and swindlers in the city. Apparently, crime is so bad that even emergency responders welcomed visitors and athletes to the city with a sign to warn them of the dangers.

Hurdler Shi Dongpeng would find himself a victim of a crime upon arriving in Rio when he was vomited on by an assailant, which later led to his and a journalist’s belongings being stolen by an accomplice.

To make matters worse, journalists following the Chinese men’s basketball team found themselves caught in the middle of a gunfight between a gang and police.

These incidents have led China to dispatch some of their own police officers to Rio to provide security for the Chinese delegation.

Australia, you got some explaining to do

The opening ceremony is not one of the things I like to watch as I prefer that the competitions get underway immediately. However, for others this is one of the highlights of the 16-day event.

The performances, pageantry and lighting of the cauldron gets many excited for the games. The parade of the participating countries into the stadium also fills people with pride.

But apparently Australia’s Channel 7 was not feeling the love when they cutaway from the opening ceremony for a commercial just when Team China was about to make its entrance. Needless to say they received a lot of heat for the move.

This would not be the only blunder for the broadcaster.

Slow start for Team China out of the gate

Du Li and Yi Siling settled for silver and bronze medals respectively as Virginia Thrasher of the United States won gold on the first day of competition (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty)

Du Li and Yi Siling settled for silver and bronze medals respectively as Virginia Thrasher of the United States won gold on the first day of competition (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty)

Normally on the first day of competition one would hear the name of an athlete from the Chinese delegation collecting the first gold medal of the games, but this time around it was not meant to be as an “upset” occurred on the shooting range in the Women’s 10m air rifle contest. Virginia Thrasher of the United States held to beat out favorites Du Li and 2012 Olympic champion Yi Siling.

China normally has a strong squad in the shooting competitions, but this time around their best just seem to be off their game as they looked to kick start the country’s gold rush.

Over to the volleyball court and the women’s volleyball had a stumble in their first game of pool play as they fell to the Netherlands in a thrilling five-setter. The reigning world champions, who are looking to redeem themselves after failing to win a medal at the 2012 London Olympics, have been considered a heavy favorite this time around, so this opening loss put them in quite a predicament to advance from their group (they won their last two games against Italy and Puerto Rico, but fell to Serbia to put them on the brink of elimination unless they can defeat the United States in their final game on Sunday).

“Drug cheat!” Them’s being fightin’ words

Comments from Mark Horton, calling Sun Yang a

Comments from Mark Horton calling Sun Yang a drug cheat have not gone down well (Jean Catuffe/Getty).

There have always been rivals in the swimming pool, but the rivalry between Chinese top man Sun Yang and Australia’s Mack Horton has literally caused an international incident with supporters on both sides backing up their men.

According to reports, the entire fiasco started when Sun allegedly splashed water at Horton in the Rio training pool.

Then it lead over to the final of the men’s 400m freestyle final, in which Horton, making his Olympics debut, beat the defending champion by the narrowest of margins.

Horton, prior to the race, let his feelings be known about what he thinks of Sun with the words that rocked a country of 1.4 billion people.

“I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats,” he said.

And with that, Sun’s hero status reached astronomical levels as countless numbers of Chinese fans found their way to Horton’s social media accounts to blast the Australian for his vile comments. The #apologizetosunyang started trending (and it is still going strong as of today) as legions of Chinese demanded Horton take back his words – many calling him a snake.

And things just went from bad to worse when Horton admitted that he made the comments just to psych out his rival.

Of course, rivalries between swimmers should be left to them, but this incident even enraged the Chinese Swimming Association, who demanded an apology. However, Horton has stood his ground and has received the backing of Australian officials who believe he “has a right to express his views about the need for a clean sport.”

And the war of words went from simmering to a full on inferno when the media threw in their two cents. Leading the way was an op-ed in broadsheet the Global Times saying, “Australia should feel embarrassed with Horton’s remarks.” It even delved back into the country’s history:

It’s not a big deal to us. 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.

And it did not stop there.

Over on CCTV, anchor Bai Yansong, who is covering the games in Rio, put out a strongly worded comment that supported Sun and lambasted Horton. He went even as far as to reference the the Australian swim team that was implicated in a drugs scandal in 2012.

French swimmer Camille Lacourt later joined in the debate as he sided with Horton. In an interview with French radio station RMC after Sun Yang took gold in the 200m freestyle, Lacourt would say that Sun “pisses purple,” implying that he is a drug cheat.

Doping in sports has always been a contentious issue with some athletes calling for a permanent ban on anyone who has tested positive. It is one that has not only affected China, but all countries. The Russian team has been in the spotlight more recently. And Sun has not been the only one who has been singled out at these games as Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova has been called out for her own transgression.

But those who are calling these athletes must be careful. For one, athletes in their own countries have been caught doping (even if they do not have state sponsored sports programs). Two, if any of them are caught doping in the future, their comments will most certainly comeback to haunt them.

While some have decided not to choose sides in the Sun-Horton controversy, there can be some agreement by all that there must be improved efforts by all to make sure that sports remain clean of performance enhancing drugs.


The flawed Chinese flag was spotted by viewers during a medals ceremony.

The flawed Chinese flag was spotted by views during a medals ceremony.

Having your country’s flag raised at the medals ceremony should be a great moment for an athlete, but that is until someone spots something wrong.

During the flag raising after the Women’s 10m air rifle contest, viewers noticed something strange about the Chinese flags being raised. The smaller stars on the flag are meant to be pointing towards the larger star at a 36-degree angle. However, these stars were parallel to each other.

Oops! How are the organizers going to explain this one?

According to the first reports, the flags were made by a Chinese supplier. However, Zhejiang-based Jinyu Textile Company were quick to deny those reports. It was later confirmed by Olympic organizers that the botched flags were indeed made by Brazilian company. Organizers issued an apology and fortunately replacement flags were brought in a few days later to avoid anymore embarassment.

Part 2 to come soon

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