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Chinese lose... at sabre fencing

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James Reynolds | 17:23 UK time, Thursday, 14 August 2008

China's won a foundry full of gold medals (so many that I won't bother to list how many, for fear of making this post immediately out of date.) So far, China's Olympic team has got the gold in most of the events it's expected to win.

But what happens on those occasions when its team doesn't win? And, in particular, when China comes excruciatingly close to gold?

I've just been to see the final of the women's sabre fencing - China v Ukraine - one of the most bone-crushingly tense sporting events I've ever seen.

There were thousands of us inside the stadium - most came to cheer loudly for China.

"Stab her!" a man (who was not a fencing expert) near me shouted out in encouragement.

This policy seemed to work. The Chinese team swished its way into the lead and it held onto it for most of the match.

"Zhong Guo, Jiayou," - Go China, the crowd chanted.

But Ukraine poked and hacked its way back into the match. After an hour, the score was tied 44-44 and tournament came down to a final, single point. The Chinese player Tan Xue and the player from the Ukraine Olga Kharlan attacked at the same time. They both screamed in victory (so did the crowd), but the referee couldn't work out which player won. So he ordered the point to be replayed. The crowd decided it would be easier to carry on screaming.

The players lunged, and Ukraine got the point and the gold. The crowd clapped and then went quiet. A few seconds later stadium, the lights went on. In one corner, a group of female fans was crying.

"I'm so disappointed," said one young man, "but they'll get the gold next time."

The Chinese players sat in a huddle on the ground. Later on, they picked themselves up for the medal ceremony. The four team members walked in, waved to the crowd, and slapped hands with the gold medal winners. When the Ukraine national anthem started playing, the Chinese players put down their bouquets of flowers and stood respectfully with their arms at their sides (a Chinese tradition.) The crowd clapped the winners politely.

The Chinese team had been millimetres away from gold in front of their home crowd - but they lost out. It's the kind of thing that might keep you awake at night in agony for years. But that's for the future. Tonight, the sabre team went out with grace.


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