23 October 2016
Lin Gui is just one among several foreign Olympic sportspersons in Rio that have their roots in China.
Lin Gui is just one among several foreign Olympic sportspersons in Rio that have their roots in China.

Overseas Chinese shine in Rio

They look Chinese. They were born in the mainland. Yet the athletes do not represent Team China.

Television viewers may have noticed that quite a few participants in the ongoing Rio Olympics appear to be Chinese, but are competing under different flags.

Well, the fact is that there are more than two dozen ethnic Chinese among the ranks of other teams that are contesting in the summer games. 

Let’s take a look at the first match of women’s singles in table tennis last Friday.

Speaking virtually the same language and having a similar playing style, it was China’s Liu Shiwen versus Brazil’s Gui Lin.

In case you are wondering, Lin has been Brazilian resident since 2005. After becoming a naturalized citizen in 2012, she was selected as part of the Brazilian national team for table tennis. 

Lin is just one among several foreign sportspersons in Rio that have their roots in China. 

According to China Daily, as many as 30 athletes born in China or who have their Chinese ancestry have qualified for one of the 140 places in the men’s and women’s singles draws at Rio.

About 30 percent of the total table tennis players in Rio are Chinese – and that probably explains why we see so many familiar faces playing against each other.

Ethnic Chinese are in the table tennis teams of the United States (Feng Yijun), Austria (Liu Jia), Germany (Han Ying), Luxembourg (Ni Xialian), Netherlands (Li Jiao) and Spain (He Zhiwen), apart from the host nation Brazil.

Liu Jia, 34, was the flag-bearer for Team Austria at the opening ceremony, as she marked her fifth appearance for her country at the Olympics since Sydney 2000.

With their domination in sports such as table tennis and badminton, it offered a reminder that the Chinese excel in games featuring small-sized balls (with the exception of golf).

However, it’s a different story if the balls are bigger and require much more team work.

Now, what can possibly explain the interesting Chinese Vs Chinese phenomenon?

Globalization is an easy explanation. But delving deeper, one can’t help but conclude that the presence of Chinese players in foreign teams may be more due to China’s athletic training system.

China has a lucrative state-funded farm system for athletes, but competition for the top spots is very intense.

As a result, many Chinese looking for a chance to compete internationally, seeking opportunities either for themselves or for their children, have sought to emigrate to other countries and regions.

The sports-related migration, particularly to Europe, has gained ground in the past 30 years.

Hong Kong has also been a big beneficiary of this trend, as many top players in the city in the past two decades were Chinese immigrants.

Ditto for Australia, where 10 Chinese athletes made up part of the delegation from Down Under in the Rio squad.

Apart from table tennis and badminton, Chinese athletes have had a commanding presence in Olympic sports such as diving and gymnastics.

But this year, the Chinese haven’t had as much success in the Olympics as in the previous games in London and Beijing.

In some key events, the Chinese have lagged far behind their competitors from the US and UK.

While this seems to be an unusual setback to China, there’s however one thing that we can safely predict for the future: more Chinese faces in global sporting events, but holding aloft different flags.

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EJ Insight writer

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