Aug 05, 2021 08:02 PM

Opinion: Dreams Never Die for China’s Older Olympians

China’s 32-year-old Chen Long lost to Denmark’s 27-year-old Viktor Axelsen in men’s singles badminton final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: VCG
China’s 32-year-old Chen Long lost to Denmark’s 27-year-old Viktor Axelsen in men’s singles badminton final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: VCG

Traditionally, when Chinese athletes enter their 30s, they might be viewed as being on the brink of retirement and find themselves in an awkward position on the team. However, this has not been the case at the Tokyo Olympics.

On the evening of Aug. 2, 32-year-old Chen Long played in the men’s singles badminton final.

Chen was a champion in the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, he has failed to reach the final major tournaments of recent years, sometimes even getting knocked out before the semifinals. But the veteran did not let his head drop and arrived in Tokyo ready to prove himself, hoping to lead his younger teammates to glory.

When he made it to the final, the player on the other side of the net was the younger, more exuberant Viktor Axelsen. Bearing the blisters on the soles, Chen Long bit the bullet and kept challenging his Danish opponent. Nevertheless, age took its toll and the gap in strength helped Axelsen win.

After winning the gold, Axelsen broke into tears, and Chen graciously patted him on the shoulder and congratulated him. After three Olympics and three medals of different denominations, Chen can now be compared to fellow badminton greats Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei.

Then there is the 32-year old Dong Dong. Dong, who started practicing gymnastics at the age of five and switched to trampoline at 13, finished his 4th Olympics with a silver medal.


Dong Dong wins the silver medal in the men’s trampoline final in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: VCG

Apart from winning the gold medal at the London Olympics, Dong Dong also has a bronze medal from Beijing 2008 and a silver medal from Rio 2016. Some people feel sorry about his performance in Tokyo, believing sporting success is only represented by a gold medal. But, it is impossible for every dreamer to get what they desire, and for most people, knowing that you have done your best and feeling that you’ve grown is rewarding enough.

Others bow out having reached their dreams, like Su Bingtian and Gong Lijiao, both 32 years old.

In a men’s 100 meters semifinal heat, Su not only finished first, but also broke the Asian record with a time of 9.83 seconds. In the final, he was sixth to cross the finish line, with the time 9.98 seconds.


Chinese athlete Su Bingtian won his semifinal heat, making him the first Chinese athlete to make it to the men's 100 meter finals. Photo: VCG

Although Su did not win a medal, he did create Chinese sports history, fulfilling a dream few in the Chinese sports world would have even dared to hope might come true. After all, the men’s 100 meters is regarded as the “diamond” in the crown of Olympic sports.

Gong, however, was fighting for the dream of many generations of shot putters.


Gong Lijiao won the women’s shot put final in 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: VCG

In spite of winning shot put world championships, before the Tokyo games, China had still not won an Olympic gold medal, with a bronze at Seoul 1988 and silver at Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996 as its best results on the day of competition. In the past three Olympic Games, Gong had silver and bronze medals only after other athletes were later disqualified.

During the five years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, with the help of digital tools, she has worked on the small details. In her training sessions, she would accumulate 1 ton of shot put volume, with her sweat soaking four or five training uniforms and two pairs of shoes. This is what has kept her dream alive. When the moment arrived at the New National Stadium, she set a personal best of 20.58 meters.

Shi Tingmao and Wang Han from the Chinese diving team have also achieved a new start. Longing for gold, 30-year-old Wang never stopped chasing her dream. She has participated in numerous competitions with former champions Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia, and her younger teammate He Zi. At Tokyo, she would take silver at the women’s single three-meter springboard and gold in the synchronized three-meter springboard diving with the “Queen of Springboard,” 30-year-old Shi Tingmao. In China’s elite diving team, a silver medal is a failure. One can only imagine how hard it must have been for Wang to chase gold for 18 years.


Wang Han and Shi Tingmao won the gold medal in the women’s three-meter synchronized springboard on July 25. Photo: IC Photo

 In fact, what drives these veterans to continue and extend their active careers is not only their inner dreams, their persistence in the details and their intentions, but really the support and concern of their families.

Lü Xiaojun, 37, broke the Olympic records in snatch, clean and jerk, and total in the men’s 81 kilogram weightlifting. For him, the greatest motivation comes from the support of his wife and the expectations of his eldest daughter, who believes that her father could lift anything in the whole world.

Ma Long, a 31-year-old Chinese table tennis player and defending Olympic champion went through five extremely tough years prior to the Tokyo Olympics. Even though he suffered from injuries which almost ended his career, Ma went all the way to the final where he defeated his teammate Fan Zhendong. It was his 2-year-old son who gave him the motivation. On the podium, Ma looked into the camera and made a heart with his hand, a message to his son.

Yang Wang is a sports commentator and the former editor-in-chief of Channel 5 magazine.

Contact editor Joshua Dummer (

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