China Celebrates Bronze-Winning Olympic Swimmer's Spirit : The Torch With her goofy facial expressions, Fu Yuanhui has captured the world's attention — if not the gold — and is changing the way Chinese think about the Olympics and how athletes should speak and behave.

China Celebrates Bronze-Winning Olympic Swimmer's Spirit

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A 20-year-old swimmer at the Olympic Games in Rio has become a national hero at home in China, not because of her swimming or her bronze medal. The Chinese are celebrating her Olympic spirit. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Fu Yuanhui became famous practically overnight thanks to a TV interview after the semifinals of the 100-meter backstroke last week. She tells her interviewer how amazed and satisfied she is at the result.

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FU YUANHUI: (Gasping).

KUHN: She gasps. She gapes. She beams.

JOHN YAN: Fu is very different. She stands out among the muted majority.

KUHN: Veteran Beijing-based sports commentator John Yan notes that Chinese athletes, for the most part, remain quiet and conservative. They're trained in a state-run system that produces athletes like weightlifter Meng Suping. After winning the gold last week, Meng kneeled and lowered her head to the floor.

She thanked China and its leaders for giving her the chance to fulfill her duty. Those leaders often describe the Olympics as a contest of national strength. But John Yan says the Chinese fans are increasingly enjoying sports and athletes for their own sake.

YAN: The race for No. 1 or No. 2 in the medal table has not grabbed so much public attention. I think it's a kind of positive change.

KUHN: China currently ranks second in the overall medal count behind the U.S. Fu Yuanhui, meanwhile, won even more praise on Saturday by breaking a taboo and speaking openly about the pain of competing while having her menstrual period. On Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, Fu has amassed millions of followers thanks to her willingness...

YAN: ...To express her failings, her success, her disappointment. It comes out to be a real human being. And that's what, you know, warms up the whole nation.

KUHN: That warmth was on display on Tuesday as Fu arrived at the Beijing airport to a heroine's welcome. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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