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A closer look at the Olympic bias against China

The facts just don’t stack up with charges of an anti-China bias at these Olympics.

Rare is the Olympics without controversy. The talk sweeping the Chinese, though, is that Olympic officials from the rest of the world are cheating to knock them back. The conspiracy theory relies on four incidents: the women’s doubles badminton disqualifications, the women’s track cycling team sprint, Ye Shiwen’s record 400m individual medley swim and the men’s rings. The incidents were indeed controversial, but on reflection, none of them demonstrate a bias of any sort.

Women’s doubles badminton
After four pairs, one of which was Chinese, did their utmost to lose their last group matches, the Badminton World Federation ejected all eight Olympians from the competition. The incident reignited a debate about the competition format—badminton is using group play at these Olympics, a shift from the usual single-elimination. Some Chinese media accused the West of a “double standard”.

I wrote a post earlier defending the BWF’s decision, but there is more to suggest that the decision wasn’t anti-China. The conspiracy theorists say that the fact that so many teams were also disqualified (two from South Korea and one from Indonesia) must surely point to the format, not the teams. Putting aside the logical leap, that same fact—that it wasn’t just China—contradicts the anti-China bias theory.

There was a prima facie case to eject only China. As I explained in my earlier post, the Chinese top seeds started it. The other teams just followed suit as a counter-strategy. (Whether this was the line on which South Korea and Indonesia appealed is unclear. China did not appeal.) But the BWF rejected that line (as I did), choosing to disqualify all involved teams: “they started it” is no excuse for unsportsmanlike conduct of that nature.

Chinese media have been far from unanimous on this. It’s the same debate that’s been raging in the West: was tanking a legitimate strategy or shameful violation of Olympic values? Anyone who saw a video would know that it wasn’t just “conserving energy”: they were deliberately serving into the net. While still debatable, that puts it a long way from the alleged “double standard”.

Women’s team track cycling
The Chinese pair had already broken the world record twice, but were stunned to have been relegated to silver after officials ruled their changeover in the final against Germany was illegal. The Chinese protested, writing, “While understanding your explanation of the commissaires’ decision… we believe that this… judgement is not in accordance with the rules and the regulations.”

They weren’t the first team to be relegated. The British were relegated for the same reason: a changeover just hundredths of a second too early. It was close, though the British accepted their mistake. Because it was in the first round, that put the British out of contention altogether. That seems to have been lost on those convinced the relegation was all about knocking China down.

Women’s 400m individual medley
Ye Shiwen’s performance in the 400m individual medley was extraordinary. Too extraordinary, claimed American coach John Leonard, who said “history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something… ‘unbelievable’… it turns out later on there was doping involved.”

Chinese were predictably outraged at the suggestion. Their anti-doping chief Jiang Zhixue said they “never questioned Michael Phelps when he bagged eight gold medals in Beijing.” Why can’t China have good swimmers too?

Mr Leonard’s suggestions are debatable but we leave them aside: their validity is not relevant. What gets lost on the conspiracy theorists is not only that Mr Leonard is not a representative of the Olympics, but that he was a lone voice. Every official who commented to the media defended Miss Ye. FINA, the sport’s governing body, went as far as to release a statement saying that “there is no factual basis to support this kind of insinuations [sic]”.

IOC president Jacques Rogge and British culture secretary Jeremy Hunt reiterated their confidence in the anti-doping measures. IOC medical chief Arne Ljungqvist, British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan and London 2012 chairman Lord Coe even criticised Mr Leonard. They said, respectively, that “sport is in danger”, “I think it is wrong” and it would be “very unfair to judge an athlete by a sudden breakthrough”.

You would think the weight of Western voices defending Miss Ye would have satisfied the Chinese that the world is actually on their side. But they seem happier ignoring that support, preferring to focus on the single voice that fits in with the conspiracy.

Men’s rings
That leaves the men’s rings. The Chinese gymnast Chen Yibing was favourite to win the gold medal, known as the “King of Rings” in his home country. But Brazilian Arthur Nabarrete Zaniettia pulled an upset, edging out Mr Chen by 0.1 of a point to take the gold medal.

Western media reported it as an upset; Chinese media reported it as a dispute. Gymnastics is a subjective sport, so I don’t claim to know any better, though I understand that many commentators were surprised. For our purposes, let’s just accept that it was a travesty.

At first glance, it seems churlish to claim that this shows any sort of systematic bias among judges. China finished top of the medals table in artistic gymnastics: no other country hit four golds. Other subjective sports show a similar story. In diving, China pulled six of the eight golds on offer. In the trampoline, six of the eight medals went to China. If judges are trying to be biased against China, they’re doing a poor job of it.

Those statistics are, again, conveniently ignored by conspiracy theorists. But let’s play devil’s advocate. Maybe bias is more subtle: it only really affects the results in close, 50-50 calls. China’s other victories just show their genuine superiority.

That conception of bias would contradict anti-China claims. Firstly, the outraged Chinese considered Mr Chen to be a clear victory, not a marginal one. Given that judges (unlike in other sports) have near-absolute discretion over the score, if they’re right that the rings judges just wanted China to lose, there’s no reason they couldn’t have used the same tactic in other subjective events.

More critically, though, once we concede that the rings was a close call, we must also accept that there was legitimate reason to award the Brazilian the gold. In that case, the only way to show bias is if 50-50 calls consistently went against the Chinese. No other gymnastics gold medal decision has been as controversial, but two of China’s other golds were within 0.2 of a point.

So where’s the bias?
Conspiracy theorists often ignore inconvenient facts. My efforts to point out to pro-Chinese friends when the world was on their side have been in vain. It is much easier, when trying to support a narrative that the world is against you, to ignore your foreign supporters and lash out only at select instances.

It’s natural and understandable, when controversial calls don’t go your way, to ask if officials just didn’t want you to win. But it’s not okay to ignore the the broader picture in your answer. Whatever the situation in global politics is, in these Olympics the facts just don’t support the notion that the world is biased against China. The conspiracy theorists should acknowledge this, then put it behind them and be rightly proud of China’s performance for what it is.

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