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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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