The latest Olympic hero for China is not even a gold medalist.
Fu Yuanhui is popular for simply being herself — unafraid to show her unfiltered, wacky facial expressions and candid words.
Her smile lit up the deck as she took a victory lap with the bronze medal around her neck for her performance in the 100-meter backstroke. She didn’t care that it wasn’t gold, even if her country has long pushed athletes to get to the top of the podium.
As if to prove the point, she thanked herself.
“I want to tell myself that … your perseverance and efforts in the past have not been in vain,” Fu said. “Though I didn’t win first place, I have already surpassed myself.”
Her candor — paired with animated facial expressions — is a rarity among Chinese elite athletes, who have spent so much time in the rigid state sport system that their vocabulary is often robotically limited by the state parlance that puts the country’s honor and national pride first.
Just six years ago, a senior Chinese official chided short-track speedskater Zhou Yang for failing to thank the country first and only mentioning her parents after winning gold in the 1,500-meter event at the Vancouver Olympics.
For decades, the Chinese public has been obsessed with Olympic gold medals but turned their nose up on anything less than the top spot on the podium. They even were downright cruel to athletes who failed to win gold and considered it a shame to come only second.
The adoration piled upon Fu as her followers on social media swelled to nearly 5 million from 56,000 this week, the latest sign that China is moving away from the gold-medal mentality and starting to respect sportsmanship and athletes as individuals.
“The Chinese society has indeed changed. We still have the collective desire to remain first-class in the world, but we are respecting individual rights,” opined the state-run newspaper Global Times — known for its nationalistic stance — on Fu’s soaring popularity.
“Although Fu Yuanhui is an exception, it marks changes in the generation of younger athletes. The echoing applause by the Chinese public marks a shift in the societal awareness,” wrote the editorial, suggesting that China’s politics is partly to be blamed for the restraints and reservation often exhibited by Chinese athletes.
Born in an average family in the prospering eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, Fu began to swim at 5 when her parents hoped the water exercise could improve her health and alleviate her asthma, according to a 2015 Chinese media report. Her talent emerged, and the girl was recruited into the municipal swimming team. Considered a genius in the pool, Fu competed in London but came home empty-handed. Unabashed, she reportedly joked she had drunk enough of the “foot-washing water” of other swimmers.
Fu apparently has not considered the Olympic gold a must in her swimming career, a departure from state athletes who are tasked with winning for the sake of the country.
On her 20th birthday in January, she posted this on her social media account: “I know for what I live. I know the kind of life I want. It’s simple. Joy. Loving Heart. Gratitude.”
“This is what I want. Being outstanding or not, it does not matter.”
Her parents also put no pressure on her.
“We set no goal for her, but what’s important is to enjoy the process and to be happy,” her father, Fu Chunsheng, told local media in 2013. “But there’s one principle that she should feel no regret when she looks back on this experience after 10 years.”
It doesn’t look like she will. The swimmer claimed she used “primordial force” in Rio, and the term became an instant meme in China’s social media. And her exaggerated expression of surprise in learning her speed has gone viral:
“Incredible. I am that fast?” she said. “I am very satisfied.”