Chinese state media on Friday walked back its accusations of biased judging in the men’s all-around gymnastics event after silver medalist Xiao Ruoteng asked his fans not to “attack other athletes who have fought hard for their goals.”
On Thursday, Chinese state media played up accusations of favoritism towards Japanese gold medalist Hashimoto Daiki from “netizens” on China’s heavily censored, tightly controlled social media. Hashimoto narrowly bested Xiao for the gold after both gave superb performances with a few minor mistakes. Chinese “netizens,” with the blessing and support of state media, claimed the judges went hard on Xiao’s slip-ups while giving Hashimoto a pass for his.
China’s latest ugly conspiracy theory was refined on Thursday to more specific allegations that Xiao was wronged by Indian referee Deepak Kabra because he wrote a tweet during the 2019 Military World Games in which he said the Chinese team was dominating the competition and “someone should stop them from a clean sweep.”
This rather anodyne bit of boosterism loomed large in the imagination of Chinese netizens thanks to the ongoing military, economic, and political tensions between India and China. For the conspiracy theorists, an Indian judge snatching victory away from a Chinese Olympic athlete was an irresistible storyline.
The 2019 Military World Games were held in Wuhan, China, a city that would go on to become famous for other reasons.
For his part, Xiao wrote social media posts and gave interviews in which he threw cold water on the heated allegations of bias and displayed a little good sportsmanship toward Hashimoto, at which point Chinese state media and its legion of netizen robots suddenly flipped to praising his gracious spirit and making allowances for the difficulty of judging high competitive athletic events.
From the state-run Global Times on Friday:
“Everyone in the world has different opinions, athletes have theirs too… And it was great to get the recognition from supporters… But I hope people don’t attack other athletes, who have fought hard for their goals,” Xiao said in a Sina Weibo post on Thursday, in which he added photos with Japanese and Russian athletes on the podium.
In an interview with Sina Sports on Wednesday, Xiao said he would not deny his efforts, as he showed the spirit of Chinese athletes through the Olympic Games. “I don’t hate the champion. We’re just athletes,” Xiao told Sina Sports. Compared to his first Weibo post after the match, under which netizens criticized the referee and the Japanese athletes, many praised Xiao for his generosity in the post above.
“You are the champion in my heart. Great athletes have superb skills but also excellent and admirable work ethic and character, and you have them all,” an internet user said.
The Global Times, which 24 hours earlier was muttering about the strong evidence of bias against Xiao by the judges in Tokyo – it was an anti-Japanese conspiracy theory before it mutated to become the even more contagious India Variant – suddenly began quoting commentators who explained how judges see things that arena and TV spectators cannot, and understand the “sophisticated rules” of Olympic competition much better than armchair blowhards.
“There is no need to put the Olympics on the table of parochial nationalism and bashing, which is against the Olympic spirit. Viewers need to understand what is to be maintained and promoted in the Olympics and what is not to be allowed,” sports commentator Wang Dazhao told the Global Times.
Wang added the perception of “unfairness” is amplified by athletes losing the “opportunity to adapt to the referees in advance” because so many competitions have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.