Skip to main content

CBC Olympic swimming analyst, Byron MacDonald, is seen in this undated handout photo. The CBC has formally apologized after one of the broadcaster's commentators remarked that a Chinese teen swimmer “died like a pig” during her race.CBC/The Canadian Press

China's angry Olympics took a Canadian turn after comments from a CBC broadcaster about a Chinese athlete prompted an outpouring of rage in a country where ill feeling has boiled over after a series of perceived insults.

Chinese state media called commentator Byron MacDonald "abusive" after the CBC aired him saying "that little 14 year old girl from China dropped the ball" at the women's 4x200-metre freestyle relay Thursday. She "went out like stink and died like a pig," Mr. MacDonald said. The CBC subsequently apologized, saying "we sincerely regret that these comments were made."

Former students leapt to the defence of Mr. MacDonald, a long-time coach who used the term poolside to describe a swimmer who has started strong but faded. "It is not racist, and it is not an attack on an individual," said Steve Hulford, who swam under Mr. MacDonald in the early 1990s.

But in China, few were willing to forgive.

Social media users called Mr. MacDonald racist and demanded his head. One person posted his e-mail address, calling for a flood of correspondence demanding a personal apology. Another dismissed Canada as a former colony that "makes me disgusted and even sick." Another recited a long list of injustices against Chinese, from the head tax to dead railway workers, saying, "Chinese have been discriminated against for over 100 years."

David Shoalts: Sure, Elliotte Friedman goofed, but he also showed grace under fire

Related: CBC announcer Friedman apologizes for Phelps-Lochte mixup

Rio Olympics Day 7: What to watch and the latest news

On Twitter, meanwhile, a user named Xue Gong – who has just two followers, the hallmark of China's paid social media goons – posted a picture of Mr. MacDonald sporting a pork snout overlain with the text: "Yes! Im pig! Dirty pig!"

For some Chinese viewers, the Rio Olympics have been an inspiration for rage.

The controversies have come one after another. Australian broadcaster Channel 7 cut to commercials when the Chinese delegation entered during the opening ceremony, then mixed up China's flag for Chile's. The official Olympics version of the Chinese flag misaligned its stars. Australian swimmer Mack Horton accused rival Sun Yang of being a "drug cheat."

"This Olympics should be called the anti-China Games," one user lamented on China's Sina Weibo social media.

One remarkable screed in the nationalist Global Times, a Communist Party-run tabloid, accused Australians of "barbarism," calling them a people infected by feelings of "white supremacy" who live in a "second-class" country that was once "populated by the UK's unwanted criminals."

Behind the anger lies a country increasingly convinced it is a superpower that should be treated with commensurate deference. No country would mix up the stars on the U.S. flag. Why must China suffer such ignominy?

China's Olympic fury also reflects a browbeating petulance that has become such a hallmark of its international relations that it has merited scientific inquiry. Since 1959, the People's Daily, the central propaganda organ, has on 143 occasions accused others of "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people," one study found.

A belief that the world is ganging up on China permeates official rhetoric on the South China Sea and Olympic judging alike. In 2012, state media openly railed against "Olympic bias" and "hysterical" and "paranoid" attitudes toward China.

Barely a week before it exploded over Mack Horton, the Global Times similarly bashed Australia as a one-time "offshore prison of the UK" over its support of an international court that ruled against some of China's maritime claims.

More than words are at stake: one Australian security expert suggested Chinese hackers, mad about the Olympics, could be behind an attack that took down the country's online census. The Swimming Australia website was also hacked.

Still, all of this is set against an Olympics that, inside China at least, has produced moments of unexpected beauty.

Take Du Li, the air rifle shooter who set an Olympic record in 10-metre qualifying, only to fall to an American in the actual event, yielding the U.S. its first gold of the Games. At home, her loss was met with surprising compassion. Chinese viewers were struck by a personal story that included long stretches of training away from her eight-year-old.

"Although she didn't win the gold, a lot of people loved her and thought she's great, she's a good athlete and has sacrificed so much," said Dong Jinxia, a former international gymnastics judge who is now director of The Peking University Research Centre for Gender, Sports and Society.

That reflects something broader in China, she said, where people are slowly beginning to relax after decades of heavy striving, and sport is beginning to move from a national enhancement project to a leisure pursuit.

"People have started to pay more attention to their own interests and individual needs. They are not just concerned about Olympic winning," she said.

It's a shift from attitudes since the Mao Zedong era. In 1949, a senior Communist official said "Chinese people have to stand up in the world. … Sport could undertake this arduous but glorious task." Beijing in recent decades spent heavily to pursue gold medals, part of a "strategy to make China a sports superpower, as well as a political and economic power, that could compete on equal grounds with the USA, Japan and Korea," write the authors of The Politicisation of Sport in Modern China: Communists and Champions.

But in Rio, China has discovered that winning isn't enough. It wants respect, too.

"Chinese people are just starting to stand up for themselves," said David Gulasi, an Australian who runs an English school in China. "It does feel like China is being targeted in some way. I don't think Chinese citizens are being overly sensitive. I think they're being offended."

Mr. Gulasi hasn't been shy about defending China's hurt Olympics feelings. Before his 1.2-million Chinese social media followers, he posted pictures of the swimmer with text saying "I am a loser" in English and Chinese.

"As a champion you don't take a medal and then say to the second, 'You're an idiot, you're a drug cheat.' That is not only him speaking. He's speaking on behalf of the entire country. That is why I was really upset," Mr. Gulasi said.

Still, if China's anger comes in part from medal count angst – after coming number one for gold medals in Beijing, it slipped to second in London, and lags the U.S. again in Rio – it may want to get used to it.

The very trends producing more compassionate viewers may also produce fewer top athletes, as parents keep children from the inhuman rigours of state-sponsored training.

In other words, don't count on China to repeat its Beijing dominance.

"This Games, China should do relatively well, although it will certainly be hard to repeat the past two Games' results," said Prof. Dong. "And there may be even more challenges for China in the next Olympics."

-with reporting by Yu Mei

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe