HONG KONG — The tense U.S.-Chinese relationship is playing out on the Olympic stage as accusations of doping and poor sportsmanship on both sides — and a thirst to one-up each other in medal count — highlight the friction between the world’s only superpower and its burgeoning Asian rival.
Forget the Cold War. This is the gold, silver and bronze war.
While the two nations are in a close race for overall medals, with the United States holding a 37-34 lead Thursday, the games themselves have taken an edgier turn, with finger-pointing and name-calling, which intensified after one Chinese women’s badminton doubles team was disqualified Wednesday for throwing its match in order to draw a weaker rival in a later round.
U.S. athletic heavyweights, such as tennis star Serena Williams, blasted the Chinese for the dishonor they have brought on the Olympic Games. “No one wants to tank never, never, never in competition,” she said.
In Hong Kong, a recent editorial in the Sun tabloid charged that crushing the U.S. at the London Games wouldn’t be just a sports victory; it would dispel all doubts that China has become a near equal to the U.S. in economic might.
The Olympic bad blood is merely a backdrop to a larger issue as China tries to use the games as a platform to show that it has become a major player on the world stage, a strategy that began with the 2008 games in Beijing.
“It’s tied in with this story that the [Communist] Party is trying to tell: China is developing, and it’s taking its place at the top, and sport gets mixed up in that,” said Daniel R. Hammond, who lectures in Chinese politics and society at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
“There’s an element there in how the Chinese government views itself, how it wants to be viewed internationally, and the image it wants to project of a nation taking its place in the world,” he said.
A history of gamesmanship
It’s not the first time international politics and global tensions have dominated the games.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler attempted to use the Berlin Olympics to showcase Nazi Germany, but U.S. track-and-field star Jesse Owens’ four gold medals undermined that effort, disproving Hitler’s boasts of Aryan superiority in front of the world.
The 1964 games in Tokyo were a chance for Japan to revel in the progress it had made since World War II, which devastated its economy.
Perhaps the most famous victory in American Olympic history was the U.S. hockey team’s defeat of the Soviets at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. That win has entered the sports and social lexicon as the “Miracle on Ice.”
A few months later, the U.S. boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets followed suit four years later by refusing to take part in the Los Angeles Summer Games.
Russia’s Olympic performance has waned considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union, and its longtime rivalry with the U.S. largely has become an afterthought. In 1988, Soviet athletes led the board with 132 medals overall. In the London Games, Russians are placing 11th overall, with 11 medals, far below the hauls of competitors from the U.S., China, Japan and other nations.