James Lawton: Greatest stories at the Games are etched in gold of Chinese characters

British glory has been so relentless in these 29th Olympics, and that of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps so spectacular, it has been easy to forget that the most remarkable story of all has been written in Chinese characters.

It has been the long march of the biggest, most carefully vetted army in the history of organised sport and the extent of the pressure applied to those selected will probably never be accurately measured.

Some have been as programmed and unblinking as Chairman Mao's Red Guards, some have cracked as though the weight of their vast nation had been directed entirely on to their shoulders – and others, the smallest of minorities, it has appeared, have been as defiantly balanced as Tian Jia, a 27-year-old beach volleyball player who here yesterday refused to hang her head in shame despite the fact that she had won merely a silver medal. Her stance, in its way, was as startling as if a member of the Terracotta army had suddenly come to life.

Apparently unmindful that her compatriot Zhu Qinan, the defending Olympic champion in the 10-metre air rifle shooting category had rushed away in tears at the dawn of the Games after failing to hold her nerve, and that another reigning champion, the superstar hurdler Liu Xiang hid his head when injury cut him down in the heats, Tian Jia declared that whoever you are, and however immense the sporting programme in which you are a small and eminently dispensable cog, you can only give everything you have.

This, she also pointed out, is especially true when you have just gone down to the best players in the world, the American champions Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor. who were winning their 108th consecutive match.

Tian Jia might have added that her conquerors Kerri and Misty were not picked out for training in a strange game from a culture which might have been devised on another planet. They grew up playing in the sand.

Such is the pressure around every Chinese competitor in these Games that the strong-minded Tian Jia might well have made her statement without the provocation which came when all the fans were packed into the buses and driven away.

She and her team-mate Wang Jie had, after all, slaved to reward some of the most intense support received by any of the army of "patriot" competitors who have met, give or take a few heart-broken casualties, the government edict that they must finish at the top of the medals table, and thus beat America, for the first time in their Olympic history.

Each American point yesterday provoked groans from the fans who sat in the steady downpour with their little red flags poised even as the rain ran down their noses. Each Chinese riposte, in the 21-18, 21-18 defeat, brought howls of delight. It was part sport, part political rally – and then there was the question that brought the glint of defiance to Tian Jia's eyes.

She was asked by a Chinese journalist why the passion had left her play when another gold beckoned for the people's athletic army. In preliminary games she had been the noisy, scrappy one, yelling at the sky and urging on the taller Wang Jie at critical moments.

"No," she said. "It was not like that. I didn't lose my motivation today – quite the opposite. I knew I had done all I could and that I could win if I played better than I have ever done before.

"In the early games I wasn't so sure about myself or our chances of progressing, and when you are not so certain of what you can do, you do shout more. Maybe you are trying to convince yourself.

"But today I felt very calm and I knew that there was only one thing I could do. It was to play the best I could and I can assure you that was what I did.

"We are quite new to this game and the Americans we faced are great players. They have a great legacy and we are catching up – but I think we will be better in the next Olympics. In sport all you can do is fight as hard as you can. We just had to accept that we were against the better players – but that was only after the game was over."

You may say it was absurd for a key collision in the sports war declared against America by China when they were granted the right to host the most lavishly bestowed Olympics in the movement's 112-year history to occur on a square of sand dumped in the middle of a modern sports arena for a game that was, entirely for recreational reasons, born dressed in bikinis and swimming trunks on a Californian beach between surfing sessions.

But as far as the overlords of Chinese sportsmen and women were concerned this was a skirmish as important as any other across the whole Olympic front. The significance of every "spike" and desperate retrieval was that each one might make the difference between gold, silver and bronze.

As it was the Chinese earned silver and bronze, the latter coming when their No 2 team, Xue Chen and Zhang Xi, beat the Brazilians Talita and Renata in the third-place match, to further stretch the Chinese lead in the medals table. They also earned tributes from America's most celebrated players.

"These girls fought so hard and played so well," said Kerri Walsh, "that it was impossible to believe they have been playing the game for just a few years. In London in four years' time I know they will give anyone in the world as much as, if not more than, they can handle. They are coming on so fast."

No doubt the casualties will also continue to accumulate.

Liu Xiang the hurdler is the most conspicuous one this time. Even before his injury, he was showing signs of suffering from the immense weight of expectation which came when he won so brilliantly in Athens. Initially rejected from his sports school in Shanghai because it was believed he would not grow tall enough to be the high jumper his promise had indicated, Liu Xiang remade himself as a hurdler. His breakthrough in Athens turned him into the prototype for Chinese success on the track.

His technique was decreed to be a matter for significant scientific research. Another consequence was that he carried the Chinese flag at the opening ceremony. He looked about as composed as an ambushed rabbit and when he failed to qualify earlier this week his coach appeared on national television and wept his way through an apology.

Such are the pressures that have accompanied the Great Leap Forward in Chinese sport these last few days, one that has seen China complete the process that started in Atlanta 12 years ago when they won 16 gold medals against America's 44. In Sydney four years later China landed 28 and America 37. In Athens in 2004 it was China 32, American 36. Here, the Chinese march into the distance hungry for any medal that comes to them anywhere, anyhow.

You could tell this was so when Misty May-Treanor made a small joke about the game she plays, on this occasion in a near monsoon. "We have no problem with the rain," she said. "It is another reason why we wear bathing suits." The Chinese, except for Tian Jia, missed the joke, as inevitably as they did the gold they hated to see slip away.

Golden leap forward

China's medals in the past six games:


1988 5/11/12/11

1992 16/22/16/4

1996 16/22/12/4

2000 28/16/15/3

2004 32/17/14/2

2008* 46/15/22/1

*as of last night

One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Robin van Persie scores the third for Manchester United with a perfectly-guided header
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all