China works pretty hard to make sure its athletes win gold medals.
As I write, the Chinese lead the Asian Games table with 165 of them, far ahead of South Korea in second with 66.
On Tuesday night, 36,000 people at University Town Main Stadium in Guangzhou, and millions more watching on TV, celebrated China winning a brand new one for its collection – the first women’s rugby gold.
Losing 17-14 to Kazakhstan in the dying seconds of the final, 22-year-old forward Sun Tingting took a pass, ran unchallenged into the end zone, and bent down to score a try that would give China a 19-17 win.
That’s where the shouts of joy stuck in Chinese throats, and re-emerged in those of the Kazakhs.
Inches from the ground, Sun dropped the ball.
In rugby, they call it a knock-on. If you do that, the other team gets the ball. If it comes when you are 17-14 down at the end of the final, the other team gets gold. And you get a silver medal that you will probably want to throw straight into the nearest river.
Sun should have known. This stadium is haunted. She must have seen what happened here just nine days ago.
Millions around the world know about Khalfan Fahad’s miss for Qatar in the Asian Games football knockouts against Uzbekistan.
Far fewer will know about Sun Tingting’s. But hers is worse.
Asian Games rugby is a more important competition than the football. Hong Kong’s Rowan Varty, who won men’s silver on Tuesday, told me it was “the pinnacle” for his team – and he competes in top tournaments like the Dubai Sevens and Hong Kong Sevens.
If YouTube hits were based on justice, Sun’s would stretch into the billions. As I write, there are none.
But Fahad’s just looks funnier, and more people follow football. So while Fahad no longer has the worst mistake at the Asian Games, he still has the most watchable.
China’s sporting authorities will not be impressed. Rugby will be an Olympic sport in 2016, and China wants a world-beating team to stay ahead of the United States in the medal table.
Rugby clubs are now springing up all over the country. But allowing gold to escape so easily is not a good start.
This tournament has shown that rugby sevens – the faster version of 15-a-side rugby union – will be a great Olympic sport.
Japan’s march to men’s gold was electrifying, and they faced some awesome opposition in South Korea, Hong Kong and China, who will all relish playing the likes of New Zealand and Samoa in the Olympics.
Like Twenty20 cricket, sevens is instantly accessible. Given exposure, it can blossom as a mass-interest sport.
“The biggest surprise we got from this Asian Games are the fans in the stadium,” China’s Zhang Zhiqiang said after losing the men’s bronze match to South Korea.
“Rugby is not a hot sport here, and when we were playing in Doha (at the Asian Games in 2006) there were only about 200 people in the stadium. But in Guangzhou, wherever we go we can hear people saying, ‘Go China!’.
“Rugby is featuring in the Olympics and China will place more importance on this sport. In China, there is a saying that anything is possible if you dare think about it.”
Another one for YouTube
If you want a unique moment in rugby, you could do worse than the agonising manner in which Hong Kong’s women missed out on bronze on Tuesday.
Losing to Thailand in the dying seconds, giant forward Samantha Scott dived over the line to level the scores before punting the ball towards the stands in celebration.
Kicker Lai Pou Fan carefully lined up an easy conversion attempt under the posts that would have given her team two points and a medal – only to have the referee take the ball off her at the last moment, because more than 40 seconds had passed since the try was scored.
Sudden-death extra time was announced, in which Thailand immediately scored a try to claim bronze. Hong Kong trudged off the pitch in floods of tears, with Scott and Lai inconsolable.
If you want to see what the Asian Games means to the players, have a look out for this one.