David Boudia of the U.S. Claims Diving Gold. Is China’s Dominance on the Wane?

China’s performance in London has been, by any measure but perhaps its own, awesome. But in 2008, China topped the gold-medal chart

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FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP / Getty Images

US diver David Boudia competes in the men's 10m platform semi-finals during the diving event at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 11, 2012 in London.

Qiu Bo expects nothing but perfection. Going into the London Games, the Chinese two-time world champion said his biggest competition in the 10 m platform diving event was himself. So why during the Olympic diving final on Aug. 11, was Qiu settling for silver, as America’s jubilant David Boudia collected the gold?

“Qiu Bo is a diving machine,” said Boudia, who edged past the Chinese diver by just 1.80 points after having been tied with him going into the last dive. “I think he can walk away from this competition not feeling bad in any way. He has been dominant the whole quadrennium.”

Last year at an international diving event, the 19-year-old Chinese scored 25 flawless 10s. In the Olympic semifinal on Saturday morning, Qiu unleashed a superlative forward four and a half somersault. But later that day in the finals, the gold-medal favorite no longer looked quite so flawless from the tower, while Boudia and hometown favorite Tom Daley produced superb dives. Qiu’s second plunge, an armstand back triple somersault, had him briefly in the lead. But by the sixth and final round, he was tied for second place behind Britain’s Daley.

(MORE: Taking a Dive: Is Great British Hope Tom Daley Set for an Unsuccessful Olympic Games?)

Then came a clutch dive from Boudia, who nailed a back two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists pike. Minutes later, Qiu followed with exactly the same dive, but with a performance deemed ever so slightly inferior to Boudia’s. The differential was enough for the American, who barely made it into the semifinals, to claim the gold. Afterward, a Chinese journalist asked the Texas native, who also won a bronze in the 10 m synchronized diving event with Nicholas Mccrory, whether he would really give his dive a better score than Qiu’s. It was a partisan question—and Boudia sidestepped it gracefully. “Well, I’m not a judge,” he replied. “I’m a diver.”

Boudia’s surprise victory left Qiu shell-shocked. After the Saturday morning semifinals, he claimed that “the medal is not so important.” But as the final result sank in, it became clear that anything but gold was a disaster for the Chinese diver. As Boudia embraced his teammates and coach, Qiu leaned against the tiled wall of the Aquatic Center, his face buried in his arms. On the medal podium, Daley, whose every dive elicited rapturous cheers from the hometown crowd, congratulated Boudia, even though it could be argued that he lost the gold with his last dive. Qiu, meanwhile, stood stone-faced, barely able to conjure an upward turn of his mouth as the cameras recorded the moment for history.

Qiu’s silver capped off a dominating performance in London by China’s divers, who won six out of eight available gold medals. (The other miss was in the men’s 3 m springboard event, in which China’s Qin Kai took silver.) But for a team that was under pressure to sweep the diving medals, was six out of eight enough? “The rest of the world has caught up to China,” said Boudia, who was mentored by Greg Louganis, the last American to win an individual platform diving gold medal, back in 1988. In London, the American diving squad captured four medals, after having failed to win a single one at the last two Games.

(PHOTOS: A Young Olympian: Diver Carolina Mendoza’s Training Routines)

There were other misses for Team China. In weightlifting, two expected gold medals failed to materialize. In the men’s 56 kg division, Wu Jingbiao won silver and felt compelled to apologize for coming in second. “I feel terribly guilty for disappointing my country, the Chinese weightlifting team and all the people who supported me,” he said on national television. Then Zhou Jun, a last-minute substitution in the women’s 53 kg weight class, found herself in the unusual position of not completing a single successful lift at the Games. A newspaper from southwestern China labeled the 17-year-old’s Olympic debut  “the most shameful defeat for Chinese female weightlifters.”

China’s performance in London has been, by any measure but perhaps its own, awesome. As of the evening of August 11, the People’s Republic boasted 38 gold medals, second only to the U.S.’ 44. But in 2008, when the Olympics were on home turf in Beijing, China topped the gold-medal chart. For a nation that was desperate to prove its international worth, 51 gold medals (compared to the U.S.’ 36) were as clear a marker of global success as any.

But as Great Britain, which has so far racked up 28 gold medals, knows, the home field confers great advantage. China will not equal its 2008 gold-medal haul. So as it dawns on the People’s Republic that Olympic domination will elude them in London, what has the reaction been back home?

Surprisingly blasé.

Before the London Olympics began, China’s Olympic czars cautioned that matching Beijing’s total would be tough. The country sent a streamlined squad of 396 athletes to London, compared to 639 four years ago. In that sense, the Chinese public’s expectations were already downsized. But there has also been a shift in the Chinese public’s mindset. Should a nation’s worth really be measured by Olympic gold medals? And is it fair to treat Chinese Olympic athletes as medal machines? When that Chinese regional paper excoriated the women’s weightlifter, the reaction was swift. Thousands of Chinese went online to demand the newspaper apologize. After a barrage of criticism, it did.

(PHOTOS: Highlights of the 2012 Olympics)

Then there’s the reaction to the failure by China’s beloved hurdler to complete his race in London.  On Aug. 7, Liu Xiang ruptured his chronically injured Achilles tendon as he tried to clear the first hurdle in the preliminary heats. It was the second time that the Olympic icon failed to finish a race at the Games. (In Athens, Liu won gold, making him the first Chinese male to nab a track and field Olympic title.) But instead of savaging Liu, the Chinese public joined together to console him and brand him a hero, regardless of his going home empty-handed from London.

Even the Chinese government, which has pursued a single-minded “gold-medal strategy,” dialed back the pressure. “All competitions have victors and losers and often there is only a hundredth of a millimeter between them,” said Xinhua, the country’s official news agency. “Winners have applause and flowers to greet them but the losers also are worthy of our respect and concern.”

The broader question is this: Is the success of a golden few worth the sacrifices of so many? Tens of thousands of Chinese children who are recruited into the Soviet-style sports system don’t make it to the top level of sports and are left to fend afterwards with little education and few usable skills. The focus on gold medals also funnels government money away from mass participation in sports. The average Chinese kid doesn’t get to play ball after school. Sports are for national glory, not fun. Perhaps that reality is no longer suitable for a rising China, where individuals are demanding freedom to choose their futures.

Qiu didn’t pick diving for his career. It was chosen for him by a coach, who saw Qiu at age 7 bouncing on a trampoline. At first, because his sports school didn’t have a pool, he practiced by diving into a pile of pillows. But Qiu was soon winning championships. “When I was young, I though diving was something that was really fun,” he told TIME earlier this summer. “Now I consider it more like a job.” After he collected his silver, the usually affable Chinese diver had composed himself and refused to apologize for his still stellar performance. “I am still young,” he said. “I will be back in four years. I believe the Chinese diving team is the best.”

VIDEO: The Sights and Sounds of the Olympics

19 comments
Bobserver
Bobserver

"For the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were 596 US competitors and 639 Chinese competitors.

In London, there are 530 US competitors and 396 Chinese competitors.

Assuming both countries have sent their best for the events they

compete in, I would expect China's medal take of all colours to be less

than that of the USA.  Taken in that context, the Chinese second place

to the Americans and medal numbers are actually not bad and much better

than a simple scaling down would imply."

The third place, Great Britain, further illustrates the above.  That country being host had a home advantage and because the maintenance costs for competitors during the games are less than an away Olympics, Britain fielded 541 for the 2012 Olympics for a total haul of 65 medals compared to Beijing 2008 where they had 312 competitors bring in 47 medals.

Trenchy
Trenchy

Well if Qiu is a machine, I guess he should not show any emotion when he loses, should he? Yet interestingly, if athletes from other countries show disappointment when they lose, it is human nature. If Chinese athletes cry after they lose, it is because they are "forced" by the Chinese system. That's a pretty brilliant theory, Ms. Beech. I hope you get more fact and data to back your theory, though. By the way, for those Chinese athletes who did not make it to the Olympic games, they are not "sacrificed". Back in China I have some friends who have athletic training since they were a kid. Even though they are not top athletes and never won a title in our province, they still make a good living by coaching others. They were not very good in terms of academic scores, so athletics is indeed a better job for them. I agree with the author that there should be some change to the Chinese system, but please get more facts and data to back your conclusion, instead of just writing things based on your imagination. What you have written is so different from what I have seen that I begin to doubt if I am really from China.....

Trenchy
Trenchy

By the way, many top Chinese athletes (e.g. Liu Xiang and Yao Ming) have endorsement contracts for hugh amounts of money. Athletes are not forced to win gold medals. They are indeed very motivated to win gold medals, both in terms of economical gain and in terms of national glory. Some Americans should get to know more about the Chinese society before they make their comments about "Chinese athletes forced to win gold medals".

Greg Way
Greg Way

As we see so often now in the press, these reporters are out to discredit the Chinese athletes and Chinese system.

Now that the swimming doping accusation against Ye Shiwen (and the Chinese team) is proved to be largely a farce. These people (particularly American ones) are opening another front: discrediting the entire Chinese sports system (and much larger).

The Chinese team did not come in to expect to dominate the gold medal table, as claimed by the reporters. The Chinese team said up front that Olympics host usually gets 30% less gold medals in the next Games, based on historical experiences. Clearly they did not expect to repeat their performance in Beijing in 2008.

That China dominance relies mostly on events based on judging, as they did back in Beijing,  is yet another theory that gains popularity among some people, particularly Americans. This is sour grapes. The Chinese team won medals in more events than the US team, which won 60+% of their gold medals in swimming and track amp; field. 

Characterizing Chinese athletes as "machine" vesus the western fun-seeking, cheerful and humanized ones is yet another tactics employed by western media. Qiu Bo is disappointed because he has been the reigning world champion in the event, had led throughout the prelim amp; semi-final, and is from the team that has been dominating diving over the last decade or longer. If the US Men's Basketball team came in to get the silver medal, I don't think they'll be as cheerful as they're now, because they're just having fun out there. "Sports is all about winning," as Doc River, the Boston Celtics coach said today on NBC. The Chinese team and athletes have been perfectly happy when they won silver and bronze in modern pentathlon and women 10k race walking - they represent breakthroughs.

Bobserver
Bobserver

Carl Lewis, an American gold medallist from previous Olympics is now accusing Usain Bolt and the other Jamaican sprinters of drug cheating.

What is it with Americans when they or their teams don't win the medals they want?  Good sportsmanship is not just how you win but how you take your losses.  On that score, many American commentators and the US media during these Olympics can be regarded as not just petty but full of sour grapes.

Trenchy
Trenchy

Maybe the author thought that all athletes should join the sex parties in the Olympic village, otherwise it is not considered as having fun?

karmamyfoot
karmamyfoot

Congratulations to Boudia. What a brilliant game.

The sports of diving need competition to make it more interesting.

Trenchy
Trenchy

In China, the kids don't play balls after school because they have the pressure to work hard to go through entrance exams to eventually enter university, not because they don't have the sport facilities.  At least this is the case for the eastern area. I wonder how the reporter gets her conclusion from.

Bobserver
Bobserver

For the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were 596 US competitors and 639 Chinese competitors.

In London, there are 530 US competitors and 396 Chinese competitors.

Assuming both countries have sent their best for the events they compete in, I would expect China's medal take of all colours to be less than that of the USA.  Taken in that context, the Chinese second place to the Americans and medal numbers are actually not bad and much better than a simple scaling down would imply.

Trenchy
Trenchy

But most of the reader are not so careful to figure out the hidden facts. That's where journalists can come in and play some twists. And ordinary people just believe in whatever they read. What a nice cherrypicking of data!

teekay82
teekay82

The US claims 1 gold  medal out of 8 and all of a sudden China's dominance is over. WOW! Also Hannah, Qin Kai won the silver in 3m springboard not He Chong (he won the bronze). Now, with that mistake should I label you a "careless reporter"? From time to time it is good to not always win the gold because it allows one to strive for even higher greatness. RIO 2016  Watch Out!

Novitsky Jason
Novitsky Jason

You guys know China won this won, but they gave it for the US just to make them happy.. Completely rigged if you havent know by now.

girlygirltoo
girlygirltoo

If the event was rigged, wouldn't they have given the gold to the home country golden boy Tom Daley...not David Boudia? 

Boudia was the most consistent diver in the finals and won his gold medal fairly. It's insulting to his performance to suggest that the result was rigged. Both Chinese divers made mistakes on at least one dive. In fact, the commentators on both the BBC and NBC live streams that I saw commented that they thought the judges gave out higher scores to the Chinese divers than the messed-up dive actually deserved.

Algeria Touchshriek
Algeria Touchshriek

Sorry, but I don't agree.  Boudia's first dive was among the best I've seen this competition among male divers, and he was clean on all but a single dive.  Qiu Bo was off his game, and is lucky to have scored as he did (if it weren't for reputation, he could have easily scored 10 points less and taken bronze).

Andy Harris
Andy Harris

I agree with this.  Much of China's "dominance" in Beijing came in judged events, such as diving.  Far be it from me to to suggest that hometown advantage exists in such events, but I remember seeing physically smaller Chinese divers making less splash (by virtue of their diminutive frames) and getting higher marks.  This time, Boudia's last dive was spot-on.  Bo's just wasn't as good, and there were several other dives where his marks exceeded what I expected.

Trenchy
Trenchy

"Much of China's 'dominance' in Beijing came in judged events, such as diving". I don't agree with this. The events that are most dominated by China are table tennis, badminton and diving. I wonder since when table tennis and badminton became judged events.... Also unlike table tennis or badminton, China is not really dominant in diving, in the sense that they never won all medals in diving in one Olympic game. The last time China won a men's 10m platform gold medal dated back to 2004.

teekay82
teekay82

@Jason Interesting comment. Boudia made some great dives and I can't say I disagree with you on the rigging thing. At the London games China was definitely short changed in a few events. But no worries as the Chinese always continue to train hard. 

Algeria Touchshriek
Algeria Touchshriek

China still carried 6 of 8 diving gold medals -- I'd say that's pretty dominant.  It's certainly a higher ratio than the USA gets in swimming golds, and I'd still call USA the dominant program in swimming...

Anderson999
Anderson999

 Australia will be back among the golds in swimming...

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