Rising Powers Compete at Rio Olympics for Medals and National Pride
From August 5-21, Brazil hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and saw more than 11,000 athletes converge to represent their nations. As a developing country with economic and political turmoil at home, Brazil used the opportunity to showcase its unique history and personality to a global audience. Several rising powers in Asia found success during the Games with South Korea and Japan in line to host the next Winter and Summer Games respectively.
For the first time, a team comprised of refugees without a permanent home was able to compete in the Games. Though there were controversies related to accusations of Russian systemic doping violations, environmental and pollution concerns in Rio, and health worries stemming from the Zika virus, Rio received generally high praise for its hosting duties. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from Brazil, China, India, Japan, and South Korea on the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.
Rio 2016 was bittersweet for Brazilians. In 2009, Rio de Janeiro’s bid to host the games was successful and reflected a growing global recognition of Brazil’s emerging influence on the world stage. Seven years later, the country is paralyzed by a deep economic recession, a game-changing investigation and growing set of convictions related to the political corruption surrounding Petrobras kickback schemes, and the impending impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is a mess, but the Rio Olympics exceeded the expectations of many Brazilians, thrilled international tourists and spectators around the world, and provided an engaging platform to mix athleticism with the best party in the world. Most importantly for some, the Brazilian men’s football team won the gold medal against Germany, inspiring national pride and redeeming the team losing when the Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup.
A growing consensus is also emerging that the organization of the games in Rio and the public transportation projects will leave a lasting and positive legacy for the games among most of the city’s six million residents.
- Folha de São Paulo explored the evident gap between commentary and reporting around Brazil and the world during the run up to the games and the observable success of the host city. Furthermore, the paper argued the Rio games were nearly perfect, especially if one were factor in that this mega-event was held in a poor, unequal, and democratic developing country. Despite Rio’s lack of resources, the city was able to improve public transportation and expand infrastructure for sport and schools without excessive spending.
- Globo News reviewed the expansion of Rio de Janeiro’s infrastructure related to the Olympic Games and noted that the city had advanced the concept of “nomadic architecture” through the design of the Olympic Village. The Olympic Aquatic Center pools will be broken down and transplanted next year to Madureira Park in areas of working poor populations such as the North and Campo Grande Park in west Rio. The other arenas in the village will be transformed into a concert hall, a national athletic training center, and Arena Carioca #3 will be transformed into a public school.
- Josué Medeiros discovered the political edges to the Rio Olympic Games in the pages of Carta Capital, suggesting these international mega-event unleash complex political impacts that evident until years later. He argued the Games posed a particular challenge for the Brazilian Left, reeling from Dilma’s impeachment and very critical of Rio’s planning of the games. For Medeiros, the roar of the crowds and the spectacular performances handed out by the athletes quickly silenced the Left’s rejection of this mega-event.
- Medeiros also explored the geopolitical dimensions of the Rio games to recognize that Rio’s winning bid grew from a broader, regional political development wherein “progressive” and Left leaning governments ruled in many of the South American nations during the past decade, including Brazil. In part, Medeiros argued Brazil’s soft power, its vibrant democracy, and the attraction of its economic development and social inclusion since the election of the first Workers Party government in 2002 created the conditions for the first South American Olympics. For Medeiros the Rio games served as a promising moment of reflection for the Brazilian left, a place and time to understand how far Brazil has come and what it might take to win gold in the future.
Others were less overwhelmingly positive when looking to the future of Rio and Brazil after the Olympians head home.
- Istoé recognized the successful hosting of the Rio Olympics, but asked the question: was it worth it? Brazilian sports analyst Juca Kfouri proclaimed the “biggest legacy of the Rio games was the party hosted by the people of Rio who will never forget this special moment, but the bill for the Olympic gala will be high.” The glory days of 2009 are long gone as a cloud of pessimism hangs over the heads of most Brazilians.
- Reinaldo Azevedo, the bombastic commentator for Veja, declared the Rio games a success, but warned that business in terms of crime as usual may return to the streets as soon as the limelight fades.
- Good or bad, interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony and remained distant for the rest of the Games. For Azevedo, the absence of Temer worked to highlight the people of Rio who really stole the show with their hospitality, happiness, and endless parties.
China sent its largest-ever delegation to the Rio games and ended with the second highest total medal total. This success was not enough for some in China, however, because it was a slight drop from the country’s totals in 2008 and 2012; the United Kingdom inched by China with a higher gold medal count in 2016. China has traditionally viewed its “sporting prowess” as an important element of the nation’s soft power.
Several media outlets and experts praised for Brazil and harkened back to the Beijing 2008 Games.
- China Daily praised Brazil for a “mesmerizing, inspiring, and thoroughly entertaining” opening ceremony in spite of the country’s economic and political troubles and the high bar set by Beijing 2008 and London 2012. The paper also welcomed the inclusion of the refugee team and the spirit of the competition shown by Chinese athletes.
- Ding Gang, senior editor at The People’s Daily, thought Rio’s “party spirit” proved the “Olympic Games can be a success in both meticulous countries like China and relaxed ones such as Brazil.”
- China’s netizens should be proud of how well the country’s hosted the 2008 games in Beijing, but Global Times challenged readers to refrain from displaying “confrontation and arrogance” when discussing Rio’s difficulties that “run counter to the Olympic Spirit.” Noting that China and Brazil are both developing countries, the paper reminded that China experienced similar “censure” from the West in the run up to 2008.
Others debated whether the country’s relative medal count decline should be seen as a disappointment or a welcomed change in Chinese beliefs toward the purpose of the Games.
- Xinhua called China’s second place finish in the medal count the country’s “worst Olympic flop.” After being leapfrogged by the United Kingdom in the gold medal count, the Beijing News said China was simply outspent by the British investments into their sport programs.
- Chinese television censors briefly shutdown BBC World coverage of the gymnastic competitions when the British station was showing a piece on China’s medals struggles.
- Xu Guoqi, author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, said the British “performance this time is a terrible bitter pill for the Chinese regime to swallow” and a “huge embarrassment for the regime and President Xi Jinping who has clearly linked his ‘China dream’ with the dream of China as a sporting powerhouse.”
- David Yang, editor of China Sports Review, hoped China’s third-place finish would be an opportunity to push reforms needed to improve the country’s sports programs, but he predicted resistance as the effort would reduce central authority and jobs for senior officials.
- On the other hand, China Daily writer Zhang Zhouxiang remarked on the changing attitudes in other parts of Chinese society toward their athletes. For example, after Chinese short-track speed skater Zhou Yang won gold at Vancouver 2010, she thanked her parents and coaches, prompting the deputy director of China’s sports body to decry that “she should thank the State first.” In Rio, Zhang saw Chinese officials and the public as more open and tolerant when Olympians expressed their opinions or failed to end up on the medal platform.
- Shanghai Daily and China Daily reported on the Chinese public’s surge of support for swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s “pure enjoyment” after learning she set a personal best even though she did not win gold or silver.
- China Daily cheered this attitudinal shift, insisting the country to “bid farewell to the past obsession with gold medals and shift more resources to the development of sports for ordinary people.” Global Times voiced similar views.
- Nevertheless, with China’s regional rival Japan hosting the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Gracenotes Sports analyst Simon Gleave expected there to be more pressure China’s young athletes to improve on the medal tally.
A few controversies and unconventional stories dominated sports coverage in China.
- China Daily published a story on how the Traditional Chinese Medicine technique of “cupping” – using heat and local suction of the skin thought to draw out toxins, increase blow flow, and soothe muscle pain – became popular with Rio Olympians, including U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.
- Journalist Wang Yiqing criticized the Australian swimming team for its accusations that Chinese gold medal swimmer Sun Yang was a “drug cheat,” declaring the comments against the spirit of the Games and designed to “provoke controversy” and psyche out the competition. Global Times hit Australia for its need to “effuse its white supremacy” over Asian countries and applauded China for supporting its swimmers.
- China Daily’s Li Yang criticized the track and field committee’s decision to grant the U.S. 4×100 women’s relay team a solo redo of their race after interference from Brazil caused the Americans to drop the baton. The appeal resulted in the U.S. team knocking China out of the finals, prompting a backlash in China with accusations the “overpowering influence of the U.S.” prevents “fair competition.”
The Indian delegation to Rio – the largest-ever squad at 120 athletes – was optimistic about the country’s medal prospects after their success at the 2012 London Olympics where they won six medals after winning just seven individual medals total in prior Games. Indeed, The Times of India hoped Rio would “herald a revolution in Indian sport.” Although India left Rio with just two medals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated India’s athletes for giving “his or her best.” He singled out P.V. Sindhu for winning a silver medal in badminton and Sakshi Mailk for a bronze in wrestling.
Most of the buzz after the Rio Games in Indian media was on whether the country had a real “sports culture” and how to make further progress in future Olympics.
- The Hindu considered the team’s showing “no doubt underwhelming from the largest contingent of Indian athletes at the Olympics ever” and questioned whether the country had the “sporting culture” and infrastructure necessary to win big at the Games. This view was echoed by Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar in The Indian Express.
- Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual gold medalist after winning the Men’s 10-meter air rifle in Beijing 2008, urged New Delhi to follow the British example of investing more public funding for athletes that resulted in such success in 2016.
- The Economic Times blamed the lack of a non-cricket “sporting culture” – not the government – for “Indian being the world’s worst per capita Olympic medal-gatherer.” The paper called on Indians to not just cheer and wave the tricolor flag, but to “lay out a modern, professional sporting system while gritty, talented individuals keep giving their best.”
- For The Times of India, the allegation that medal contending wrestler Narsingh Yadav used performance enhancing drugs was proof India’s athletic federations “simply can’t take care of our athletes” and “see their position as an opportunity to disburse patronage and feather their own nests.” The Daily Pioneer called Yadav “foolish” for his part in actions that earned him a four year ban from competition. The Indian Express’s Ronojoy Sen contended that the use of performance enhancing drugs is a byproduct in societies that “link sporting excellence with national pride.”
- To remedy this situation, sports journalist Joy Bhattacharjya advised Indians to follow sports as a whole – not just its superstars – while supporting student athletes and local leagues.
- On the other hand, Anil Dharker, columnist for The Indian Express, believed India should focus on sports “where our strength lies” like wrestling, shooting, archery, and weight-lifting while pushing aside other events even if they may occasionally produce stars like gymnastic vault finalist Dipa Karmakar. The Daily Pioneer agreed and wanted more support to help India’s prior medal winners to keep up their success.
Others discussed the success of India’s female Olympians against the situation of women in the country.
- The Hindu praised Sakshi Malik for winning a bronze medal in 58-kg freestyle wrestling and showing the government should “provide its young the opportunity to train and compete.” The Daily Pioneer gave similar treatment to P.V. Sindu. In contrast, Economic Times was hard on India’s women archers for having “suffered a meltdown” in Rio.
- While India’s female Olympians were praised in the media for having the country’s best showing in Rio, Journalist Sandip Roy remarked that some of the athletes like Sakshi Malik “comes from a part of India especially hostile to its daughters.” Roy wanted the country to respect all women, not just those who win medals.
- Writing for The Wire, Priyansh, a scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, argued that raising up female medal winners as “India’s daughters” was a harmful approach. “If a female athlete needs to accomplish extraordinary tasks in order to be acknowledged as ‘India’s daughter’,” Priyansh wrote, “then what status does she enjoy before that? A pariah? A burden?”
Several outlets and experts praised Brazil’s handling of the pressure as a host and their use of the Olympics as a global platform.
- In the lead-up to Rio, N. Sudarshan, journalist with The Hindu, observed the Olympics were a tool for Brazil to showcase its “soft power” and put a “mirror to the world and unto itself” to debate economic inequalities, crime, and the international order.
- Siddharth Saxena, reporter for Times of India, criticized the West for “gleefully” mocking Brazil’s ability to host the Games, adding that “if you wanted the Olympics to be perfect, the First World would host it all the time, but no one would remember. If it’s for a memory, Rio – centre of the world’s soul – will hand it to you.” The Indian Express agreed with this sentiment.
- Lalitha Sridhar, a columnist for The Hindu, advanced the long-standing idea of having permanent venues for the Olympics as a “logical solution to a massive and recurrent problem” of host countries going into debt after the last medal is awarded.
With Tokyo hosting the next Summer Olympics in 2020, Japan closely watched how Rio handled the Games. Japan won a record number of medals (41 total including 12 gold) at the Rio Olympics. During the portion of the closing ceremony when the host nation hands over the Games to the next country, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a surprise appearance dressed as the popular video game character Mario arriving via his trademark green pipe. “Next, it is our turn to provide the excitement,” Abe declared.
Many media outlets were generally positive on how Brazil hosted the 2016 Games though some controversies were present with the Olympics as a whole.
- Asahi Shimbun praised Rio for hosting a relatively cost efficient Games and a model Tokyo can use to host a “budget- and eco-friendly” Olympics.
- The Olympic team made up of refugees should serve as a lesson for Japan to learn how to be more accepting of refugees, wrote Asahi Shimbun. Japan has one of the strictest refugee and immigration programs in the world. Mainichi concurred, adding that it was time to “take the issue seriously.”
- Mainichi demanded the IOC “not overlook the responsibility” of the Russian Olympic Committee in the doping violations and their lack of independence from the Russian government. Yomiuri Shimbun thought the Russian doping violations “cast a shadow over the Olympics.”
- With violence on-going in Syria’s civil war, Asahi Shimbun mocked the idea of an “Olympic Truce” – a tradition dating back to ancient Greece whereby nations would lay down their weapons during the Games.
Others focused on the lessons the Rio Games should have for Tokyo as they prepare for their turn as the host city.
- Mainichi demanded the 2020 Games follow Rio’s example of prioritizing environmental protection both in terms of the opening ceremony theme and the resource and energy intensive logistics of hosting.
- Asahi Shimbun was excited to see who will be the “next superstar to unleash immense power” at Tokyo 2020 now that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has retired.
- Mainichi called for an investigation into how funds might have been used as bribes to secure the votes necessary for Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Similar accusations emerged about Japan’s bid for the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.
- Asahi Shimbun wanted Tokyo to follow Rio’s example and have signs at the venues in Chinese and Korean in addition to Japanese and English as “an ideal opportunity for shrinking the emotional distance between Japan and its ‘close but ‘distant’ neighbors.”
- Yuriko Koike, the current governor of Tokyo and former defense minister, wrote an op-ed in The Japan Times promising to strive for an affordable and “cleaner, corruption-free games” in 2020.
South Korea exceeded its initial expectations by finishing eighth in the medal count with 21 medals in Rio, including nine gold. One memorable moment in Rio saw gymnasts Lee Eun-Ju from South Korea and Hong Un-jong from North Korea pose for a “selfie” photo on the sidelines of their competition. The photo reminded some journalists of when the countries marched together as a joint Korean delegation during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Commentators remarked on the South Korea’s success at the Rio Games and drew lessons from the proceedings for South Korea as it hosts the Winter 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
- Park Shing-Hong, deputy editor of Eye24, profiled taekwondo gold medalist Oh Hye-ri who after struggling with prior injuries and several near misses finally reached the top of the medal podium in Rio.
- Dong-A Ilbo praised the Korean golf team – Park In-bee won the gold medal – for “showing the world that Korean golf is the best.” Still, the paper urged Korea to “strengthen the foundation of the basic sports” such as swimming, gymnastics, and track and field to compete with China and Japan in future Olympics.
- Despite geopolitical disputes with Japan, North Korea, and China, Korea JoongAng Daily hoped the “power of sports diplomacy” could calm tensions and bring nations together.
- On a related note, the Korea Economic Institute reported on North Korea’s use of sports as “a tool of the regime’s propaganda to enhance its status in the world and to distract public discontent rising from economic failure.”
- Rio’s difficult experiences in preparing for the Games was “an opportunity to check our own proceedings” two years away from the Pyeongchang Games, said The Korea Times. The paper, worried whether the city’s Olympic committee could handle the task, complained about unexciting and passé white tiger and black bear mascots with names “too long and hard to understand, even for Koreans.”