If there was one thing that the Chinese media and net users couldn’t get enough of in the run up to the Rio 2016 Olympics, it was moaning about every conceivable aspect of them and reminiscing about the glory of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Just before the 2016 Games kicked off, the breaking news and commentary website Guanchazhe published an article “This May Be the Most-Viewed Opening Ceremony Video in China of the Entire Rio Olympics.” The video was embedded in the article and showed highlights from the 2008 opening ceremony in Beijing.
The website’s readers quickly got on board and filled up the article’s comments section with smug one-liners. One user commented that “there are two kinds of Olympics: the Olympics and the Beijing Olympics.” It seems that for many Chinese, the 2016 Games are just an opportunity to relive the glory of eight years ago.
In 1990, after 12 years of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up policies, China held their first ever Asian Games. It was an exciting event for a country eager to show itself off itself internationally, and helped sow the public support in China for the eventual Olympics bid.
That bid was lost in 1993 to Sydney — the hosts of the 2000 Summer Olympics. We felt crushed. We would have to wait another eight years for a second chance, but Beijing finally received the bid to host in July 2001.
In 2008 Beijing commissioned some of the finest real estate — the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube — in one of the city’s most prime locations. In the opening ceremony we set off 28 giant footprint-shaped fireworks, and the Olympic torch completed its relay in the stadium after passing through six continents.
We poured our hearts into the Olympics, but all good things come to an end. After 16 glorious days, China’s 15-year push to host the games was over in what felt like a heartbeat.
The lead-up to the Beijing Olympics was a grand affair. It was as if we were showering a beloved with countless luxury gifts to win affection, which ultimately culminated in a deluxe wedding ceremony and five-star hotel reception. The energy and passion that went into the conception and execution of the games was immeasurable, which is why the Rio Olympics — marked by social unrest and inadequate preparations — felt like a personal affront to Chinese people.
There were only two ways of concealing this embarrassment. The first was to admit that China had overemphasized the importance of the Olympics — that what we had treasured was just average in everyone else’s eyes. Obviously, we couldn’t do this: we would look foolish.
The other was to moan about everyone else, making them the fools instead. Hosting the Olympics is an honor: we treated them with respect, and so should you.
Of course, Rio is not the only target of China’s moaning. And yet before 2008, the Chinese were full of admiration for the Olympic Games regardless of which country was hosting, and local media reports were largely positive. They lauded the creativity at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics when Antonio Rebollo lit the cauldron by firing a flaming arrow. In 1996, they were moved when Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron in Atlanta while visibly suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
After 2008, however, the tone of Chinese coverage began to change. In July 2012, Wuhan Morning News published an article titled: “Plagued by Troubles Right Before Showtime: London, Are You Really Ready?” The message behind these words was implicit: Did you see how well we performed when it was our turn?
The Beijing Summer Games really did leave an impeccable impression on the world. In 2012, when I was sent to cover the London Olympics, I noticed that a number of foreign journalists were still using the high-quality and multifunctional rucksacks they had been given in 2008 at Beijing. The London Olympics media bags lasted only several days before breaking.
At the closing ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics then-president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, declared that Beijing had hosted “truly exceptional games.” And although South African and Brazil hosted unique FIFA World Cups, and London hosted a one-of-a-kind Olympics, the Chinese disparaged their lack of exceptionality.
A host of issues came up before the London Olympics. Stadiums weren’t ready the day before the opening ceremony, but the competitions went ahead anyway. Government workers threatened to go on strike, but many people took on volunteer roles to fill in for lack of personnel. Although there was a shortage of security staff, everything went on without a hitch.
Although the London Olympics were far from perfect, Rogge was still full of praise, describing them as “happy and glorious.”
While “happy and glorious” is an apt appraisal, it’s clearly not on the same level as “truly exceptional.” But looking back, Beijing’s achieved what it did after years of grueling hard work. To Chinese net users, London slacked off and just threw everything together at the last minute.
We are moaning about a lack of seriousness from other host countries, but the reality is that we took it too seriously. The world was left bewildered by why we felt the need to pull out all the stops and throw a huge wedding bash for what was simply a one-night stand.
We Chinese care too much about face, meaning we are overly preoccupied with holding our heads up high when facing the rest of the world. We achieved it at the Beijing Olympics, and we’ve never been able to get over it since.
To moan about someone else’s wedding is to reminisce about your own. We complain about the Rio Olympics in order to recall the glamour of the Beijing Olympics. And that is why Rio will not be the final target of our moaning.
(Header image: A fan wraps herself in a Chinese flag after China wins bronze at the men’s gymnastics team final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 8, 2016. Damir Sagolj/Reuters)