China

Fu Yuanhui: China's disarming and expressive Olympic swimming star

  • 10 August 2016
  • From the section China
Fu Yuanhui on the medal podium in Rio (8 Aug 2016) Image copyright AFP
Image caption A satisfied smile on the podium from Fu Yuanhui (left)

All Olympians can enjoy the support of their home country, but the enthusiasm of one Chinese swimmer after winning a bronze has made her an overnight social media star, and is changing the view of competitive sport in the country, as the BBC's Yashan Zhao reports.

"I have used all my prehistoric powers to swim," Fu Yuanhui said in an interview with CCTV5 after she qualified for the women's 100m backstroke final.

When asked what her hopes were for the final, she said: "No expectation! I'm very satisfied now!"

That's how she began to rock China's internet and social media. Add her exaggerated facial expressions and humour, and she quickly became an online celebrity.

Image copyright CCTV-5/Miaopai 'Huangwen Yuxiaopenyou'
Image caption Social media users (left) have copied Fu Yuanhui (right) after her enthusiastic CCTV interview

She eventually won a bronze medal in the 100m backstroke final, not gold. But that hasn't reduced the affection from her fans.

In fact, her fans on microblogging platform Sina Weibo have increased from a hundred thousand to four million over the past two days, and are still increasing. Many fans have also been sharing cute cartoons of Fu.

'Everyone is talking about her'

Young Chinese social media users have been drawn to her straight-forward character, her sincerity and her attitude towards competition.

Image copyright Fu Yuanhui/Weibo
Image caption One cartoon shared by Fu Yuanhui showed her exclaiming "I am so satisfied"

Joanna Zhan, a fan in Chongqing, said she liked Fu because she is "so cute, and she is as powerful as a mudslide".

"Fu interpreted the Olympic spirit of challenging herself and enjoying the game," she added.

Chinese athletes traditionally follow a pattern in media interviews after they compete, thanking the country and vowing to do their best in the next competition.

But Fu broke with tradition, showing her own happiness at her performance.

Image copyright Reuters

One fan, Feng Zhu, told the BBC she liked Fu because she always said exactly what was on her mind.

JingYing Li, a female entrepreneur in Sichuan province, said she heard about Fu from her friends. "Almost everyone is talking about her," she said.

Ms Li said her colleagues had all been sharing videos and articles about Fu, but liked that she had a deep side to her too among the jokes.

"I even checked her Weibo posts back to 2015. Although Fu seems to be a funny person on social media, she also had a tough time. And her experience encourages me to be strong when I am down."

But it seems Fu is part of a generational change in attitude towards competing.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Fu Yuanhui competes in the 100m final in Rio

Chinese athletes traditionally become big names if they win a gold medal. If they fail, they are nobody, and will not be remembered or known by audiences.

In 2008, China gained 51 gold medals in Beijing Olympics leading to a peak in national excitement and joy.

Gaochao Zhang, a London-based independent sports commentator, predicted that without any major upsets, China will secure a top three spot in the medal table this time around.

But he said younger Chinese people were now just happy "enjoying the Olympic Games rather than expecting gold medals".

And Fu's satisfaction with her bronze medal embodies exactly this new sentiment.

More on this story