London: When China's deputy chef de mission Xiao Tian stressed the importance of sportsmanship and showing "Olympic spirit" before the London Games, it sounded like the usual platitudes.

But China's surprising reaction to the expulsion of two gold-medal contenders shows how the country, already pre-eminent in the Olympic arenas, is at pains to show a benevolent face.

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After top seeds Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli were among a group of Asian badminton players disqualified for playing to lose, not only did China not object -- it applauded the decision.

And in an astonishing move, China's usually taciturn head badminton coach Li Yongbo gave a series of interviews apologising for the scandal and admitting he ordered the tactics.

"As head coach, I owe the supporters of Chinese badminton and the Chinese TV audiences an apology," he told China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

"Chinese players failed to demonstrate the fine tradition and fighting spirit of the national team. It's me to blame."

For a coach whose team is notorious for its suspicious walkovers and retirements -- 20 percent of all-Chinese matches last year were not completed, according to one study -- it was an extraordinary about-turn.

It was set in train when Yu and Wang, as well as doubles pairs from South Korea and Indonesia, incensed the Wembley Arena crowd by deliberately trying to lose their final group matches, seeking an easier quarter-final draw.

Fans chanted, "Off, off, off!" as the players served into the net and hit the shuttlecock out of court, and looked disappointed when they won points. Games chief Sebastian Coe called the scenes "depressing".

"We've already qualified, so why would we waste energy?" shrugged Yu afterwards.

The backlash was swift, and it was led by China. News agency Xinhua, often a conduit for official views, denounced the players before they had been disqualified, commenting such behaviour "violates the Olympic spirit".

When the Badminton World Federation (BWF) dismissed the players, China's delegation said their antics "violated the principles of the Olympic movement and went against the spirit of fair play. It hurt our hearts."

South Korea's appeal was rejected, while Indonesia started to appeal but withdrew their case -- and then criticised the competition's format. China was the only country to take no action at all.

On Thursday, China also stayed silent when Guo Shuang and Gong Jinjie were relegated from gold to silver for an infringement in the women's team sprint cycling. On the podium, both riders wore gracious smiles.

According to Chinese journalist Norman Li, China's accommodating reactions show how they are keen to project a positive image, especially after doping suspicions clouded the displays of teenage swimmer Ye Shiwen.

The 16-year-old had been greeted with incredulity when she broke the 400m individual medley world record with a swim whose final lap was quicker than US winner Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps in the men's competition.

"These Olympic Games have had controversy with Chinese athletes like Ye Shiwen and the doping issue," said Li, who follows China's Olympic team for Internet portal Tencent.

"So the NOC (national Olympic committee) was trying to give a positive image and try to turn around the image of Chinese sports."

He said he had noticed a shift in Chinese attitudes compared to Beijing 2008, when fans were most concerned about the hosts' gold medal tally.

Now, he said, discussion on social media sites is focusing on sportsmanship and also China's Soviet-style sports schools, which select and groom athletes from a young age, often with punishing schedules.

Such debate was spurred when it was revealed that diving gold-medallist Wu Minxia was not told her grandparents had died, or that her mother had been battling cancer for the past eight years, for fear of disrupting her training.

"I think people are thinking no matter how many gold medals we have, we have problems with our sports system and things," said Li.

"The badminton (controversy) is a good example of that -- many Internet users are thinking more about the Olympic spirit."

Whether China's social media-users are influencing their officials, or the other way round, deputy chef de mission Xiao was keen to point out the importance of fair play as the delegation arrived in London.

"We enter the Olympics as a country. It's not as an individual or a team or a squad. It's really as a country for China," he said last week.

"After 30 years of reforms and opening-up, China is developing, it's progressing, in every field and we would like to have... friendly exchanges so the Olympic spirit can continue to be promoted," added Xiao.


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