In Beijing and beyond, there is no doubt who the stars of the last few days of these championships were for the hosts. And it was not Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, Dafne Schippers or Mo Farah.
Staring out from the front of every newspaper and appearing endlessly on state broadcaster CCTV, the quartet of sprinters who won a silver medal on Saturday night behind Jamaica have become national overnight sensations. In the process, they have sparked renewed hopes that they can do for Chinese athletics what venerated hurdler Liu Xiang failed to and spark a medal rush.
Xiang, who won China’s first track and field gold in Athens in 2004, was hugely hyped before both the Beijing and London Olympics but, under huge pressure and suffering from injuries, failed to repeat the feat at either.
But after a feelgood world championships, at which the Bird’s Nest was largely sold out for evening sessions (albeit at reduced capacity), the country’s sports administrators believe that they can build on their medal success now that they have more strength in depth.
In total China won nine medals, including seven silver. The fact they won just one gold left them 11th in the medal table but the depth of their success has raised hopes for Rio.
There was a giddy atmosphere among the home crowd when the 4x100m relay team were upgraded to silver following the USA’s disqualification on Saturday night.
Su Bingtian, who also became the first Chinese sprinter to go under 10 seconds and reach a major final the previous weekend, was serenaded with a chorus of “happy birthday” as he completed a lap of honour with beaming teammates Xie Zhenye, Zhang Peimeng and Mo Youxue.
“I was moved when everyone was singing happy birthday for me. This is a historic medal for us,” he said.
Xie, who ran the second leg, said afterwards: “It was such a great feeling and the support of the crowd was amazing. Their support had a great influence.”
Flamboyant high jumper Guowei Zhang added a silver on the final night of action following a tense jump off and Lyu Huihui sparked huge cheers when she took the lead in the javelin with a throw of 66.13m, finally settling for silver.
While China has always been strong in race walking, the director of the Chinese Athletics Association, Du Zhaocai, hailed the fact that they had won medals in the sprints for the first time as a seen of progress.
“These performances are proof for us to show our efforts and the characteristics of Chinese athletics,” he said.
“We take part in several events but for some events we have won some medals for the first time in championship events. In terms of traditional events such as the race walk we have won some medals as well.”
“In terms of sprints we have won one medal and in other events we have made some breakthroughs. In 100m men’s sprint we have made some great progress, breaking 10 seconds for the first time.”
While the previous two world championships in Daegu and Moscow were dogged by low attendances and a poor atmosphere, the return to the Bird’s Nest has largely been hailed as a success.
The decisions to go to South Korea and Daegu were made for largely commercial reasons and there were fears that three “developing markets” in a row would prove damaging for a sport in the throes of a doping crisis.
But following a last ditch push to sell tickets, the organisers claimed average attendances of 34,000 during the day and 43,000 during the evening. That seemed on the high side for the morning sessions, but the crowd were largely engaged and enthusiastic.
“It’s a very obvious thing to say but China will play a huge part in the development of our sport going forward,” said Sebastian Coe, the incoming International Association of Athletics Federation president.
“Four years ago I came across to discuss with the Chinese federation how they could play a greater role in the development of our sport, in transfer of knowledge, transfer of coaching,” he added.
“There was an appetite not to sit back and say Liu Xiang has been a very good performer. They wanted to establish real progress, so it was particularly pleasing to see a Chinese team finish second in the relays and the Chinese walkers as well.”
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