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Forget Twitter, in China it's the Weibo Olympics

By Steven Jiang, CNN
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu August 2, 2012
Chinese fans cheer on their athletes at the Aquatics Center at the London Olympic Games, August 1, 2012.
Chinese fans cheer on their athletes at the Aquatics Center at the London Olympic Games, August 1, 2012.
  • Unprecedented Olympic chatter in China over micro-blogging sites
  • Around 250 million people are exchanging views like never before
  • Most popular site Sina Weibo only started after 2008 Beijing Olympics
  • Some are commenting on China's "gold-at-all-costs" sports system

Beijing (CNN) -- It has been called the first "Twitter Olympics" in the West, including on CNN. But in China -- where the government has long blocked the popular U.S.-based social media site -- the London Games are undoubtedly the first "Weibo Olympics."

Micro-blogging sites -- called "Weibo" in Chinese -- have exploded in China since one of the country's biggest web portals, Sina, launched its Twitter-like service in 2009, a year after the Beijing Olympics.

Now several leading Weibo sites give an estimated 250 million users a platform for unprecedented diversity of opinion on the world's biggest sporting event and beyond.

Millions of comments are being posted about Olympic-related topics, with many echoing the state media coverage's cheers and celebration over Chinese athletes' stellar performance, especially the two record-shattering swims by the country's gold medalist Ye Shiwen.

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Read more: Ye's Shiwen's 'unbelievable' swims are talk of Olympics

Ye Shiwen: Doping allegations 'unfair'

State media covered allegations raised by Western coaches and journalists that Ye had been doped with nationalistic fervor, prompting countless profanity-filled tirades against her accusers on Sina Weibo.

Ye Shiwen strikes gold again

However many cooler heads also reminded their fellow countrymen to look at the overall international reception to Ye's achievements.

Swimmer under scrutiny after record win

"I'm actually surprised to see that 99% of Americans seem to be defending Ye's innocence in their comments on CNN's story on her," posted a user named Muyao.

"We can't simply say Western media did this or that -- they don't speak with one voice," wrote a user named Hongwenkaiqiang.

Read more: China says West being 'petty' over Ye

Others also pointed out that state media has largely failed to mention the 1990s, an embarrassing period for Chinese swimmers during which several female stars tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

"The impact of the scandals back then is still being felt today," said user Dahaoheshan.

Many Sina Weibo users, who continue to brave the seven-hour time difference to stay up late for live Olympics coverage, have also exchanged views on China's state-sponsored sports system -- thoughts often too provocative to be heard in state-controlled media.

Read more: Doping expert: 'Only 10% caught'

Chinese media weigh in on doping

Some had harsh words for the seemingly cruel aspects of the system's "gold-medal-at-all-cost" mentality, for example, when diving gold medalist Wu Minxia's mother told domestic media that she hid the news of the passing of Wu's grandparents as well as her own breast cancer so not to distract Wu from her training.

Sebastian Coe: 'Not sure' Phelps greatest

"Is a gold medal so important that even the deaths of her grandparents should be kept in secret?" asked user Binghanyulin. "Is a gold medal more important than family ties?"

Phelps not 'hungry' like in Beijing

A similar sentiment emerged following reports in Chinese media that Zhang Chenglong, a member of the gold-winning men's gymnastic team, had spent only 17 days at home with his family in the past 14 years.

"I wonder if this is any different from being sent to prison -- except even prisons allow visitors," commented a user whose lengthy handle begins with "Shenme." "How would seeing your family have a devastating impact on your sports performance?"

Read more: Olympics Day 5 sees scandals, joy, world records and controversy

There has also been an outpouring of online sympathy and support for athletes who have failed to reach the top in London, like weightlifter Wu Jingbiao who cried uncontrollably after winning a silver and apologized on national television for "letting the country down.

"You don't have to apologize -- I don't think gold medals equal the Olympic spirit," said user Yuzili. "We all cheered for you -- it was just a game."

Besides all the serious reflection on the country's sports system, some Weibo posts also touched the lighter -- albeit no less sensitive -- side of Chinese athletics.

After Team China captured the top prize in men's gymnastics, one member, Feng Zhe -- a prolific poster on Sina Weibo with almost two million followers -- received more than just heartfelt congratulations.

A one-line message he posted in October 2010 was dug up, generating thousands of retweets and comments within hours.

The post teased: "The reason you're not gay is because you haven't met the man who can capture your heart."

While some thought it was just Feng being his facetious self, the overwhelming response appeared to hail a rare coming out for gay Chinese athletes. The post soon disappeared from Feng's public feed.

Even at the free-spirited Weibo Olympics, some taboo subjects seem to remain.

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