china big six olympic sports illustration
Illustration by Derek Zheng

Table tennis, diving, weightlifting, gymnastics, badminton, and shooting.

Sitting proud at the top of the medals table with 29 golds, China’s long-term Olympic strategy has never looked quite so effective.

Table tennis, diving, weightlifting, gymnastics, badminton, and shooting — China’s big six sports — have once again proven to be the most reliable source of Olympic medals for the country.

Of the 29 gold awarded to China so far in Tokyo, only eight have not come from one of the big six. All but two of China’s 17 silver medals have come exclusively from these sports.

In table tennis, despite missing out on gold in the mixed doubles to Japan, the Chinese team managed to come through an unprecedented threat to their dominance to claim the rest of the individual gold medals.

Defeating world number one and compatriot Fán Zhèndōng 樊振东 in the final, Mǎ Lóng 马龙 was able to stamp his name in ping pong history and perhaps claim to be the greatest player in history after becoming the first player to win two Olympic titles. (See video on YouTube)

Like table tennis, China’s diving athletes have secured all but one of the gold medals on offer. Despite losing out to Great Britain in the synchronized 10m platform in the first diving event, China has gone on to comfortably win the rest of the events so far, with Shī Tíngmào 施廷懋 and Wáng Hán 王涵 securing a one-two finish in the women’s 3m springboard. (See video on YouTube)

With just the women’s 10m platform (Aug 5) and the men’s 3m springboard (Aug 3) and 10m platform (Aug 7) events left, China remains almost certain to add three more golds to its count.

Weightlifting, too, has seen China claim every gold in every weight class they have entered, apart from women’s 55kg.

Avoiding the highly competitive heavyweight men’s divisions, China has zeroed in on the women’s competitions and the lightweight men’s classes with ruthless efficiency.

This dominance by China even led to the creation of fake news in India that the Chinese weightlifters were under investigation for doping.

China also looks likely to be the top nation in badminton this year, despite fears that Japan could surpass them.

With gold medals in the women’s singles and mixed doubles, and the potential of the women’s doubles and men’s singles crowns to be added later today, there is a chance that China will leave Tokyo with four out of five golds in badminton.

The Chinese shooting team has also seen a healthy return of medals without overshadowing the supremacy of the other sports.

With three golds, a silver, and five bronzes on the shooting range, China has managed a healthy return of medals. Sat second behind the USA’s three gold and two silvers, China will still be happy with the achievements of the athletes.

Despite missing out on promising golds in the women’s 25m pistol and men’s 10m air rifle, the emergence of 21-year-old Yáng Qiàn 杨倩 will be a source of optimism going forward.

Winning the first gold of the Games in the 10m air rifle (see video on YouTube), Yang also won the mixed team event to claim two golds on her Olympic debut.

The primary weakness in China’s big six sports this year has been in gymnastics. Despite its previous dominance in the sport, China has only achieved modest success in Tokyo.

The dramatic decline in artistic gymnastics has been the most shocking. At London 2012, China topped the medals table with four golds, three silvers and a bronze, however, the increasing competition from around the world has made it difficult for China to exploit the once niche events.

This year, apart from Liú Yáng 刘洋 managing to win gold in the men’s ring final today, China has been almost entirely absent from the leaderboards. Tokyo’s artistic gymnastics medals table is already one of the most diverse ever with countries such as Israel, Belgium, and Brazil — not traditional gymnastics nations — winning gold medals.

A small bright spot for China’s gymnasts has been in trampolining. While favorite Gāo Lěi 高磊 missed out on a medal after the world champion had a disastrous second attempt, Zhū Xuěyíng 朱雪莹 and Liú Línglíng 刘灵玲 were able to grab both gold and silver in the women’s event. (See video on YouTube)

Volleyball team crash out

Despite all the success that China has earned so far in Tokyo, perhaps one of the biggest stories of the Games has been the dramatic group stage exit of the women’s volleyball team.

Arguably China’s best national team, the volleyball side had been expected to at least secure a medal, with the goal of defending their gold from Rio five years ago.

Entering Tokyo, China could boast the world number one ranking and the world’s best player Zhū Tíng 朱婷. However, almost immediately, things began to fall apart.

A 3-0 hiding against Turkey in the opening game immediately exposed the frailties of the team without a Zhu Ting firing at 100%. Sporting a heavily strapped wrist, China’s flag carrier was substituted twice, scoring just four points.

The next game against archrivals USA went the same way. Despite putting up more of a fight and getting closer to their opponents, China struggle without Zhu watching most of the match from the bench.

A 3-2 loss to Russia in the next match all but sealed China’s fate with two games to spare.

Despite securing a 3-0 victory over the already qualified Italians, results in the other matches confirmed China’s exit at the group stage for the first time since 1992.

Following the exit, coach Láng Píng 郎平 apologized and took responsibility for the exit.

“I take all the blame as I’m the head coach. When facing difficulties, I could not find a solution and lead the team out of the trap,” Lang told Xinhua.

“I am really sorry that we failed to live up to the expectations of our fans back in China. They are so loyal and supportive to us.”


The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.