The Olympic Games have traditionally served as the China’s biggest stage for national pride. And yet, this year’s Rio Games have produced China’s most unlikely sports star: swimmer Fu Yuanhui.
Fu’s emergence as a social media star comes at a time when much of China’s participation at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games has been contentious. Chinese viewers and media have complained about problematic flags, complaints about poor judging, and the recent feud between Australian swimmer Mack Horton and Chinese swimmer Sun Yang has spread out onto the internet.
But just when it looked like China would spend the rest of the Olympics pointing fingers, Fu’s appearance on the international stage has disarmed everyone with her lack of pretension, her unorthodox manner, and her willingness to just have fun.
Fu first caught the public’s attention on Monday when she was interviewed after a semi-final race for the 100 meter backstroke. Fu is myopic, and wasn’t able to see the results of the race, so the first time she learned she had made it into the finals was when she was interviewed on camera by a CCTV reporter.
Fu’s eyes bulged at the news, and she didn’t restrain herself at expressing her giddiness. Through her charisma, the audience felt Fu’s emotions vicariously. A star was born.
Fu rise as an internet darling comes self-equipped with a meme. In describing her 58.95 finish, Fu said she used up all her “primal force” (洪荒之力), a term used by a Chinese TV drama analogous to “the Force” from Star Wars and is already trending as a popular online phrase.
But it’s not just her expressive face, considered by many to be a “living emoticon”, that has endeared her to Chinese fans. Fu is a refreshingly candid in her responses. When asked about her preparations for the Olympics, Fu went to a dark place by saying: “Only god knows the hell I’ve been through over the past three months. Sometimes I thought I was going to die. It’s this kind of feeling of which I say: it was a fate worse than death.”
At the same time, Fu Yuanhui has become famous for being eminently quotable. When asked if she had any predictions or ambitions for the finals, Fu did not hold herself accountable to the national pride that was at stake. “Not at all!” Fu said. “I don’t need to do better! I am already very satisfied with my current results!”
In contrast, Fu’s swim team member Sun Yang had angrily retorted that he was “the king of the 1500 meters” and that he was the “king of the new world” when asked about Horton.
Sun’s narcissistic attitude has become a new standard for Chinese athletes in the modern era. China’s rise as a economic superpower has brought with it a new crop of sports stars who were the greatest, and knew it. Whereas Chinese athletes back in the 80s were cliche-ridden wooden personalities, outspoken athletes like Li Na and Liu Xiang have come to represent Chinese sports and serve as spokespersons for international brands. With his numerous run-ins with authority and his refusal to cooperate with his superiors, Sun follows this very precedent.
But out of a field of elite individuals, Fu is blazing her own path. And while all modern Chinese sport stars can claim to be honest, not many can be as free and unfettered as Fu — and still be loved by her fans.
With a Chinese audience ravenous for more coverage of Fu, an old clip has resurfaced that has gone viral. At last year’s world competition in Barcelona, Fu commits a faux pas that would have sunk any other sports personality.
While waiting her turn for an interview after winning gold in the 50 meter backstroke, Fu accidentally snaps her own swimsuit strap onto her skin as she adjust it (shown above). Recoiling from the pain, Fu is seen grimacing in pain with her exaggerated features, but the faux pas has only endeared Fu to her fans.
The height of Fu Yuanhui’s celebrity has been encapsulated by live stream video chat she did with her fans that gathered an amazing 10,543,212 views, among them Chinese movie star Huang Bo. By 5pm Tueday, Fu’s Weibo account had attracted 3 million followers.
Even with her fans, Fu has no air of pretension, admitting that she doesn’t understand her newfound fame. When told that she has been considered to be “the cutest athlete at the Olympics”, Fu simply didn’t see the point. “I don’t accept being called ‘the cutest’; all I want is to bring everyone just a bit of joy,” she modestly replied.
Fu kept scrunching her face in confusion as fans sent her online gifts that she tries to dissuade them from giving. Her expressions aren’t flattering in the least, but then Fu isn’t your standard Chinese Olympic female sports star with her broad shoulders and lankly limbs. Traditionally, lithe figures from sports like gymnastics and diving have caught the public’s attention, only to go on to become trophy wives for rich businessmen.
For everything Fu Yuanhui has become famous for, it’s her message of self-acceptance that rings the loudest. Although she may be new to us, Fu has always been her quirky self. And for all the championships she has won, Fu tells us that the toughest competition she has ever had to face was her doubts.
“I’ve always been this way. There have been lots of people who have criticized me, and that has gotten me depressed. All the same, I’m the way that I am,” Fu said.
“No matter what you say, I’ll still be this way. I like the way I am, and I love myself. Nothing else matters.”