China’s performance at the 2012 London Olympics wasn't good enough for the nation's sports officials or for fans back home.
China won 38 gold, 27 silver and 23 bronze medals in London. But the team's haul came up short against the 51 gold medals it won at home in the 2008 Olympics. And for the third Olympics in a row, China was runner-up to the United States in the total medal count.
Chinese delegation chief Liu Peng called his team’s performance “satisfactory.” But he said China has a lot of work to do to "enlarge its international impact" in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“To some extent, Chinese authorities are fully aware that performance at the Olympics is a reflection, as well as an indicator, of a country’s comprehensive national power,” said Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.
“The mainstream media in China already indicated that after hosting the Olympics, on quite a number of occasions, the host country in the following Olympics would suffer a decline of about 30 percent in their medal count,” said Cheng. “So the Chinese authorities have already been preparing the people to expect a less than satisfactory performance in the London Olympics.”
Many governments believe a positive performance at the Olympics boosts national pride, and Beijing is no exception.
“Chinese people suffered a lot of humiliation in the one and a half centuries after the Opium War,” Cheng said. “So a good performance at the Olympics is something very dear to the heart of the Chinese people.”
There were other disappointments for the Chinese. A couple of gold medal hopefuls and the country's sports system were roundly criticized by Chinese media and netizens for coming up short.
Two Chinese badminton players were disqualified for attempting to deliberately “throw” their matches in order to be paired against favorable opponents in a later round. China’s head badminton coach went on state television to apologize along with two of his players.
Medal hopeful Liu Xiang couldn't make it over the first barrier in his heat of the 110 meter hurdles in London, crashing to the ground and injuring himself. A similar fate had struck Liu four years ago in Beijing when an Achilles injury caused him to fall in front of the first hurdle. So China's high hopes for the 2004 Olympic gold medalist were dashed once again.
“China has not been doing well at all in the track and field events,” said Cheng. “China only secured one gold and five bronze medals, so certainly China cannot be very proud of its achievements in the track and field events.”
Another disappoint came from reactions to the success of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, who won gold medals in both the 200- and 400-meter individual medley. The results were tainted, however, by doubts raised when an American swimming official said the 16-year-old phenom could not have achieved her world record results without performance enhancing drugs.
Drug tests ultimately proved her innocence, and Cheng said he shared the resentment of the Chinese people that such suspicions were aired publicly without evidence.
Despite not living up to its own expectations in London, most experts expect China’s future Olympic performance to improve.
“I think they’ll become quite a force," said Martin Doulton, director of Sport at Australia’s Monash University. "They obviously have some good structures in place," he said. "They’re exposing their young athletes to multi-sport events en masse, regularly and at high levels.”