How Western media politicized China's Olympic success, and why

Andy Boreham
Some Western mainstream media aimed to either paint China's success at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as nefarious, downplay its success, or both.
Andy Boreham

Wow, the Tokyo Olympics is over, so today I'll take a look at some dodgy Western mainstream media's takes on China's performance at Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo 2020 was seen, for many, as symbolic of the battle between China and the United States. That led to some interesting displays from Western mainstream media which aimed to either paint China's success as nefarious, downplay its success, or both.

In the end, the final gold tally was very close, with the US taking top spot with 39 gold medals, and China just behind on 38. Definitely a stellar effort from both teams.

Typically, medal tallies during the games favor the team with most golds to determine first place, but whenever China was ahead, some Western news agencies decided to change the rules and list first place as whichever team had the most medals in total. That just so happened to be the US team. Shock horror.

ABC News' Olympic Medal Tracker had the US placed first for much of the games, even when it was behind in gold medals. Many saw this as a way for the US to feel better about possibly not being first, while others saw it as deceptive.

When China's lead was too obvious to ignore, other Western media decided it was time to downplay China's success, like the Washington Post's Paul Musgrave who rabbited on for around 1,600 words about how he'd decided Olympic medals no longer show off any given nation's cultural power. Isn't it interesting how some people like to change the rules when it looks like things aren't going their way!

The Financial Times agreed in an article titled "China's sporting success at Tokyo 2020 is tinged with politics," where they argued that "excess nationalism may overshadow (China's) achievements."

The article went on to say: "The Communist Party has built a formidable sports program around success in the Olympics, which it sees as an important source of national pride and international legitimacy."

Firstly, the use of the term "Communist Party" here is disingenuous and designed simply to paint China's efforts with a sinister light. You don't ever see Western teams described based on the political entities running certain countries and regions, so in this regard it is actually the Financial Times who are politicizing China's success.

Secondly, since when has Olympic success not been a vehicle for national pride and international legitimacy?! I'm from New Zealand, a small country of nearly 5 million. Every single Olympics is used as a way for us to not only feel proud on the world stage, but to try and beat out our trans-Tasman rivals, Australia. Every single year New Zealand media outlet will talk about how New Zealand, despite being small, "punches above its weight" at the Olympics.

So why is it not okay for national pride and international legitimacy now? Oh that's right, because it's China who is feeling national pride and international legitimacy.

They continue to politicize China's success further on in the article where they mention preparations for the 2022 Winter Games. "As the Party leadership prepares ..." they say. Again, it's only when referring to countries like China that a host of the Olympics is referred to by any other name than the country name. "As China prepares ..." would be much more fair and honest.

The New York Times also missed no opportunities to paint China's Olympic success as something nefarious.

"China's sports assembly line is designed for one purpose: churning out gold medals for the glory of the nation," they wrote when discussing young Chinese gold medalist Hou Zhihui. This implicitly dehumanizes Chinese athletes by comparing them to products made in a factory, which instantly conjures up negative images in Western readers.

The article continues with a reference to "Beijing's sports czars," and mentions how a giant Chinese flag covers the wall of a Beijing training center, "reminding lifters that their duty is to nation, not to self." Here, the New York Times are continuing to dehumanize Chinese athletes by presenting them as parts of a larger machine and not individual people.

The entire article purposefully paints a dystopian picture of Chinese sporting success, suggesting that athletes are the products of an assembly line and that they are "groomed" by the state.

For most it's clear why US mainstream media would engage in such tactics: fear. Under the setting of the rise of China – a country many Westerners lack even basic knowledge about – such actions highlight a last ditch attempt to slow the ascent of a waking dragon.

Will it work? I doubt it, especially since trust in Western mainstream media, and particularly US mainstream media, is at an all-time low. But they will keep trying.

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