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China's 'Mudslide' Athletes Injecting Personality In Once Humourless Team

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Lovesick. Goofy. Flamboyant. Not usually words you'd associate with China's Olympic team.

There's diver Qin Kai, who walked up to the podium with a ring and a rose to propose to his girlfriend He Zi during her Olympic medal ceremony.

In Rio, however, a new generation of Chinese Olympians are breaking the mould and shaking up social media.

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Chinese diver Qin Kai proposes to silver medallist He Zi during the medal ceremony for women's diving at the Rio Games. (Photo: Getty images)

Was Qin a true romantic or an entitled man gatecrashing a woman's big moment? It depends on your view. What's certain is that his gesture would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.

A swimmer who makes faces in interviews and doesn't know when she's won a medal, a table-tennis player who snoozes at the venue, a weightlifter with gleaming gold shoes and a tendency to celebrate prematurely all have made a splash in Rio.

Chinese fans call them "the mudslides," and they are changing the colorless mainstream.

"The success of Internet technology has forged a new generation of young Chinese athletes whose mind is much more self-centred, who really enjoy the game itself, who always talk of 'me,' in sharp contrast with older athletes, who are always ready to talk about 'we,' the collective interests of the Party and the nation," Beijing-based analyst Shi Shusi told The Associated Press.

“The success of Internet technology has forged a new generation of young Chinese athletes whose mind is much more self-centred, who really enjoy the game itself.”
— Shi Shusi, Beijing-based analyst

For decades seen as the humourless products of a state production line, Chinese athletes were ruthlessly on-message at the games, with the Communist Party and their coaches receiving the plaudits after every success, while athletes lambasted themselves for failures.

Athletes from a new generation raised with social media and a growing focus on individual rights face looser restrictions on self-expression at the Olympics. Their fans increasingly denounce old-style statements of state loyalty as fake and demand authenticity. Even the Communist Party is getting on board.

Charismatic athletes changing 'single goal' Games

More expressive athletes have changed "the single goal of our chasing after Olympic golds, have changed the stereotypes of the Chinese athletes but injected new meanings into Chinese sports," the party's civilization-building arm said in an editorial on its website.

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Fu Yuanhui of China poses with her medal in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 8, 2016. (Photo: David Gray/Reuters)

Queen of the "mudslides" is swimmer Fu Yuanhui, whose exaggerated facial expressions, pop-culture references and enthusiastic style in interviews have made her a darling of social media back home.

Cartoons of Fu smiling and sticking her tongue out have gone viral on messaging apps as emojis, as has video of her finding out she'd won bronze from a TV interviewer after she'd blamed her "short arms" for letting her down.

"I never thought so many people could like me. It puts me under a lot of pressure," she said of her millions of new social media followers. Fu even broke a taboo by admitting she wasn't up to her best in a relay because she was on her period.

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An aerial shot of Lyu Xiaojun during a weightlifting match on Aug. 10, 2016. (Photo: toyan Nenov/AFP/Getty Images)

In the normally staid world of weightlifting, Lyu Xiaojun brings Usain Bolt-style swagger. Wearing shiny gold shoes like those of the Jamaican sprinter, Lyu is a showman on the stage, with grins and little nods of the heads when he makes a lift, as if to say: "I got this."

In the past, nothing less than gold was good enough for China, but Lyu is more laid-back. Instead of being heartbroken to lose out to a Kazakh rival for gold on Wednesday, and even though he'd started celebrating before the competition was over, Lyu was charitable in defeat.

"It was quite an honour to participate in an Olympic Games again. That's one of the reasons I was smiling all the way," he said.

Bashfully, he admitted his flashy footwear — specially made by a friend who "expected me to win gold" — no longer fit the occasion.

Sometimes, the crowd-pleasing gestures go wrong. When Sun Yang celebrated his swimming gold medal, he tried to throw his cap to the crowd but flicked it into the pool and had to fish it out before trying again. Still, that didn't dampen the love from his fans.

China's sports marketing revolution

With China's sports marketing industry having gone through a revolution of its own in recent years, athletes who make a name for themselves can also expect greater endorsement opportunities if their personality resonates.

Unlike older Chinese athletes who grew up watching only the team efforts of the state system, those in Rio also had individual stars like Li Na on the tennis court or Yao Ming in the NBA.

Those two fought opposition within the state training system to play around the world and become the first Chinese athletes with a truly global profile. Li's candid style, deadpan delivery and willingness to share personal details made her a favourite with fans worldwide.

After reaching her first Grand Slam final in Australia in 2011, there was no praise of the Party in her on-court interview, but plenty of mockery of her husband's snoring. "I always wake up every hour, you know," she quipped, cementing her reputation as a goofy new star.

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Chinese retired tennis player Li Na and her husband Jiang Shan attend the press conference of Zhejiang TV variety show 'Beat the Champions' on March 9, 2016 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Chinese fans on social media are turning their favourite athletes into superstars in the world's most populous nation, but when angered they're a force to be reckoned with.

New wave of Chinese fans, teams

After a public feud between Chinese swim star Sun and Australia's Mack Horton, who didn't hide his distaste at Sun's 2014 doping ban, Chinese fans bombarded Horton's Instagram page with angry comments. When Rio organizers used an inaccurate flag for China, the fans ripped Brazilians as incompetent.

There are signs that the new attitudes are spreading to once-rigid Chinese sports officials, too. China's team has been the talk of the Rio velodrome not just for their first-ever gold medal but the elegant portraits of historical and legendary figures on their helmets.

In Rio, China's not the medal factory it used to be — chances of beating the U.S. in the medal table are fading fast — but it certainly has attitude.