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Quan Hongchan exhaled and walked towards the end of the platform in the Xian Olympic Sports Centre for her final dive. Barely glancing at the pool 10 metres below, she turned around, balancing on the platform’s edge.
Her back to the water, she sprang off the platform into a 1½ twist and hugged her legs close to her chest as she somersaulted in the air. Just as quickly, she went for her dive with legs straight up in the air and toes curled in, piercing the water’s surface cleanly.
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Crowds from her native Guangdong province waved banners and cheered poolside at the National Games, as did millions in China who first became fans of the 14-year-old after she won the same event at the 2020 Tokyo Games and broke the Olympic record with a combined score of 466.20.
But after months of training and competing – including in the National Games 10-metre platform team event that she also won – Hongchan was ready for home, in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival, an important family event in the Chinese calendar.
“I want to see mum and dad first. Then I’ll want to go and play,” she told state broadcaster CCTV after her events last weekend, speaking in Mandarin with a Zhanjiang Cantonese accent.
But days before the festival on Tuesday, she virtually disappeared from social media and left fans wondering about her whereabouts.
Hongchan’s growing fame could not have coincided with a more awkward time for an up-and-coming online sensation. China is in the midst of a campaign to clamp down on celebrity culture and fandom in China, including banning content that Beijing said had fuelled fan feuds online. Her fans are caught between wanting to keep in touch with all her activities and risking being shut down.
“I suggest we don’t blindly praise Hongchan as others do in fan communities. Little Sister is still small and looks at her hashtag topic. Won’t blindly raving about her mislead her? Protecting Quan Hongchan starts with her fans,” said a user called Bieredaoxishaonu on the Twitter-like Weibo platform.
Another, Dengpipi085, told other fans: “Little Sister isn’t your web traffic or your fan. Traffic will only bring her pressure and trouble her.”
Soon after her events at the National Games ended at the weekend, Hongchan’s movements could no longer be tracked as easily as before.
The Guangdong diving team visited Guangzhou’s Chimelong Paradise amusement park on their way home from Xian, where the National Games were held, but Hongchan was not with the group.
“I’m not there,” she commented along with a smiling emoji on posts her fellow divers posted on Douyin,TikTok’s sister app, to which her teammate joked Hongchan needed to concentrate on her training.
Earlier last month, internet influencers and journalists also swarmed her home village to try to take photos with her parents. The village of Maihe, with fewer than 2,000 residents and surrounded by fields, is now closed to visitors. The village’s Communist Party chief told Chinese online outlet Red Star News that Hongchan’s family did not return home to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, possibly to avoid attention.
The state-owned China News Service and CCTV published editorials soon after her Olympic gold victory, accusing influencers of using her to gain followers and urged them not bring in the “chaos of fan bases” into her life.
Maihe villagers have hung red banners at the entrance celebrating Hongchan’s Olympic gold and performed a lion dance outside her two-storey home.
Douyin videos also showed villagers lighting firecrackers and setting off fireworks in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival at her village – but there was no sighting of the diver.
Hongchan’s every post on Douyin and Weibo is followed by some 7 million fans. When she lost her cuddly toy donkey in Xian during the games, the incident became the talk of the internet. The donkey was a gift from her brother, Jinhua, who left secondary school after two years to become a cook to support the family.
At the Tokyo Games, she was the youngest of the Chinese delegation. At a reception with President Xi Jinping, Hongchan – standing at 1.45 metres (4.75 feet) and weighing 35kg (77lbs) – was not just the smallest but looked even tinier standing next to 1.98 metre tall volleyballer Zhu Ting, shot-putter Gong Lijiao and badminton player Chen Yufei.
Xi, who merely waved at the other athletes as he walked in, stopped to compliment her. “Nice dive,” he said, to which a bashful Hongchan returned a “Hello, Mr President”.
Hongchan has been candid about her discomfort with fame. “I don’t really like that many people are paying close attention to me. I don’t feel I’m being down-to-earth,” she said after the National Games, adding she was worried people would no longer like her if she did not dive well.
Like most children her age, she is known to be a fan of online games Honour of Kings and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and complained that the hour limit on game time for minors was too short.
Her training schedule with the national and Guangdong teams had also severely limited her time with her parents.
“She has a very solid training style. She’s willing to withstand hardship, more so than other children her age, and to try difficult dives,” Guo Yi, Quan’s coach at the Zhanjiang sports school, told Guangdong Television.
“I want her to go to university so that her path ahead will be smoother,” said her father, Quan Wenmao, an orange farmer in Maihe who had not seen Quan for a year.
She told local media that her father seldom saw her at the Zhanjiang Sports School because of his work.
Quan, who has been offline since leaving Xian, said: “But I have the companionship of my coach and teammates. We’re like a big family.”
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