After 17 days of competition, China and the US were locked in a dead heat for gold medal supremacy. Their competition at the games also represents their increasing great power rivalry.
As the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo ended, the US barely edged China out on top of the gold medals tables on the last day. The US squeaked past China, which won 38 gold medals to end the games on 39 golds.
China’s foray into the Olympic tables is a relatively recent phenomenon. Between 1896, when the Olympics were first held, and 1984 when the games were held in Los Angeles, the country of several hundred million won a grand total of zero medals and fielded one athlete.
The US, on the other hand, won 1,773 medals by the 1984 games. It wasn’t until China opened to the outside world and normalised its relationship with the US in the 1970s that Beijing started to look at the Olympics as an essential part of the country’s international image.
The 1984 Olympics were a turning point for China who fielded more than 200, and athletes embraced the “soft power” opportunities that the Olympics offered.
Like China’s re-emergence as a great power and economic behemoth, its meteoric rise in the Olympics was carefully planned.
Researchers looking at Bejings’ Olympic medal strategy found that it was underpinned by the “Five-Word principle“, which is “Small, Fast, Women, Water and Agile.”
Small meant that the country would focus on small ball sports like table tennis, badminton, and lower weightlifting categories.
The country identified that it could not just focus on the “skill requirements,” such as being fast and agile but also on the “physical resources” of the country – which included small and water as a means to propel the country upwards in the medal tables.
Once China’s political leadership established that it had a competitive advantage in particular sporting events, it went on to pour significant resources to achieve success.
Until the 2012 London Olympics, the country won three-quarters of its gold medal (152 out of 201) and more than two-thirds of total medals (311 out of 473) in just six sports: table tennis, badminton, diving, gymnastics, weightlifting, and shooting.
“This deliberate strategic prioritisation led by the Chinese government was a reconfiguration of elite sporting landscape in China, which laid the foundations for China’s subsequent rise on the Olympic stage,” said researchers in a paper titled “Exploring China’s success at the Olympic Games.”
When China held the 2008 Olympics, it grabbed the most medals, seemingly a confirmation of the country’s medal strategy. Since then, the country has been in a dead heat situation with the US on the gold medal ranking.
For decades US achievement at the Olympics enhanced the country’s international image as a sporting titan, which confirmed the country’s economic and military might.
“Now [China] is entering the realm of global popular culture as well,” said Joseph Nye following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and supremacy in sporting events is part of that project.
As the US frets about the rise of China and what that means about America’s model of power, China’s sportswomen and men increasingly also reflect that change in the balance of power.
Some American outlets were also quick to agonise about China’s “overachievement” in the Tokyo Olympics.
China’s determined, some have said, even over-determined athletes stood in contrast to at least one American athlete who pulled out, citing pressure and her mental wellbeing.
The conversation it sparked seemed to also reflect an American internal discussion in a country that has become increasingly politically polarised, and issues of race and the impact of social media are increasingly at the fore.
In contrast, Chinese athletes increasingly represent the view of a state determined to emerge in the 21st century and reverse the humiliation of the last century.
The Olympics were closely watched within China until the last day as the country led in the medals table for most of the competition, with Chinese athletes receiving a hero’s welcome in many corners of the country.
For the country’s rulers, it represented an opportunity to signal that Beijing can deliver victory and success on the international stage.