As China’s gymnasts tumbled to their worst performance in three decades of Olympic competition, state news agency Xinhua couldn’t resist a dig.

China’s Olympic team has significantly underperformed in Rio, slipping behind Great Britain into third place with just 17 golds at the end of Day 11. It is shaping up to be China’s worst Olympic performance since 1996.

For a government that has long sought to bolster its prestige with Olympic success, that presents something of a challenge. State media, which began the Games in a buoyant mood, has spent the last week desperately downgrading expectations.

The Chinese public, wrote Xu Ming in the Global Times on Tuesday, is “unfazed by sluggish medal winning” in Rio, celebrating the “most relaxed games ever for China.” Chinese athletes, wrote Wang Wenwen in the same paper, had been “relieved of unfair expectations” because the nation no longer had so much to prove.

But sometimes the frustration boils over, especially when a country still remembered for invading China in the 19th century gains the upper hand.

"You're kidding me," Xinhua tweeted on Monday, as Britain overtook China to claim second place in the medal table. “The country which has never finished above China is about to.”

That tweet has since been deleted, reflecting perhaps the uncertainty over quite how China should react to this relative reversal of fortunes.

China has long been known for a single-minded obsession with Olympic gold. Potential athletes are picked out at a young age and ruthlessly groomed for Olympic success, often in a sport of the authorities’ choice. Nothing but first place was good enough for the media or the public, and Olympic success was seen as a potent symbol of a nation’s rise — culminating of course in the grand spectacle of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games, where it won a record 51 golds.

China sent 416 athletes to Rio, its largest ever overseas delegation, and had hoped for a medal haul of between 30 and 36 golds. That target now appears out of reach, but the team could still overtake Britain for second place, a position it has held in every Olympics since 2004. Failure is, after all, still far too strong a word to describe its performance.

But there is clearly more than a degree of unease. “So where’s all the gold?” the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong asked, as China’s gymnasts failed to top the podium even once, after picking up 11 golds in 2008. “Crumbling dynasty,” it wrote as the nation’s badminton doubles teams fell to defeat.

Nevertheless something is changing in China, and the obsession for gold may have dwindled. The Global Times said that’s because the nation no longer needs to work so hard to get rid of the “humiliating label of the ‘sick man of Asia.’” Not only has China already proved it can achieve sporting success, it has also more than proved itself as a global diplomatic and economic power. Today, it doesn’t need to try quite so hard.

That is not because nationalism has decreased: far from it. In fact, President Xi Jinping has staked a huge part of the Communist Party’s legitimacy on what he calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” — in other words, making China great again.

An aggressive strain of nationalism runs through the media and social media — but sports is not its main expression.

“Why cry out? China is not a second-class nation that relies on gold medals for existence any more,” one netizen wrote on the popular Tianya online discussion forum. “It is just sport.”

The fact that the party’s focus has always been on training elite athletes rather than funding grass-roots sports could also mean that ordinary people’s connection with specific sports is shallower: If China isn’t winning, they lose interest more quickly. The days when families would gather together around the television set to watch the Olympics together are slowly disappearing in the Internet age.

Values are also changing. The younger generation has embraced Fu Yuanhui, a quirky and disarmingly modest swimmer who won many hearts despite only gaining a bronze medal. Fans are not as unforgiving as they once were about competitors who fail to reach the top of the podium, and more inclined to celebrate human beings than sporting automatons.

“We no longer need to focus on the number of gold medals to prove the nation’s strength, but can instead applaud how much effort the athletes have paid and the true character behind them,” the Global Times wrote.

It was not long ago that things were different. Liu Xiang had been a national hero for winning China’s first track and field gold in the 110 m hurdles, but successive failures in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 because of an Achilles tendon injury were met with “doubts and accusation,” the Global Times wrote.

In the end, it wrote, Liu was remembered as a “fallen star” who quit twice.


Hao You falls in the parallel bars final on Day 11 of the Games. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

In an editorial, the Beijing News argued that people should still care about success, because the country had made an investment in their team.

“Every taxpayer is an investor in the Olympic Games,” it wrote. “Where there is an investment, you think about returns.”

Meanwhile, coverage of China’s gymnastics disappointment on BBC World television was blacked out in China on Wednesday morning, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper — a sure sign that censors still find the whole subject distinctly touchy.