The pressure on Chinese athletes to perform has never been higher. Anything less than a gold is being seen as unpatriotic by furious nationalists online, the BBC reports.
China’s mixed doubles table tennis team made a tearful apology at the Tokyo Olympics last week – for winning a silver medal.
“I feel like I’ve failed the team,” Liu Shiwen said, tears welling in her eyes.
Her partner, Xu Xin, added: “I think the entire Chinese team cannot accept this result.”
Their finals loss against Japan in a sport they usually dominate left many online furious saying they had “failed the nation”.
As nationalist fever continues to sweep the country, racking up the Olympic medal tally has become about much more than just sporting glory.
“To these people, Olympic medal tables are trackers of national prowess and, by extension, of national dignity,” said Florian Schneider, director of the Netherlands’ Leiden Asia Centre. “In that context, someone who fails at a competition against foreigners has let down or even betrayed the nation.”
The table tennis match was an especially bitter pill to swallow because it was a loss to Japan, with which China shares a tumultuous history. Anti-Japanese sentiments on Weibo ran high throughout the match, as users called the referees all manner of names.
China’s Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen were abused online when they lost their badminton doubles final to Taiwan which China sees as a breakaway province.
“Are you guys not awake? You didn’t put in any effort at all. What crap!” one Weibo user commented.
Other targeted athletes included sharpshooter Yang Qian. Despite her taking the Tokyo Games’ first gold medal, her downfall was an old Weibo post where she showed off her Nike shoe collection.
People were enraged, given how the brand is among those being boycotted in China for its pledge to stop using Xinjiang cotton over forced labour concerns.
“As a Chinese athlete, why do you collect Nike shoes? Shouldn’t you lead the way in boycotting Nike?” one comment read.
Her teammate Wang Luyao also faced anger when she failed to make a spot in the women’s 10m air rifle final. “Did we send you to the Olympics to represent the country just to be weak?” one user asked rhetorically.
“The so-called ‘little pinks’, or youngsters with strong nationalist feelings, have a disproportionate voice online,” said Jonathan Hassid, a political science expert at Iowa State University.
“This voice is amplified because legitimate criticism of the state is increasingly unacceptable.”
At the China Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebrations on July 1, President Xi Jinping made a defiant speech about how China would never be “bullied” by foreign powers.
“The authorities have flagged nationalism as the correct way to understand current affairs, and China’s role in the world,” Schneider said. “The Chinese public have been told that national success matters, and now Chinese athletes must deliver this success in Tokyo.”
Experts say this is indicative of where the “danger” lies – when nationalism appears to have gone too far, even for the state.
“The party tries to exploit online nationalism for its own purposes, but events like this show that once Chinese citizens get riled up, the state has great difficulty in controlling their feelings,” Hassid said.
“Exploiting nationalist sentiment is like riding a tiger. Once aboard, it is very difficult to control and hard to get off.”