BEIJING (AFP) – Fighting, biting, alleged cheating and an extraordinary on-pitch protest have cast a shadow over China's National Games and prompted renewed accusations that the quest for medals in the domestic showcase is motivated mainly by greed.
The quadrennial tournament dubbed "China's Olympics" -- which draws to a close in Shenyang on Thursday -- features teams from each province and region, as well as the military, emergency services and state-run entities in what is intended as patriotic and friendly competition.
But the stakes are high for each area's sporting officials, with success in the medals table unlocking opportunities for promotion and increased funding from the central government in Beijing. Failure, meanwhile, can lead to the sack.
"The stench of money has haunted the National Games and become the driving force in encouraging athletes and coaches to participate," Xi Jiandong, vice-president of Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics told sohu.com, a news website.
Despite the worthy slogan of "Fitness for all to enjoy", athletes are under intense pressure to perform, resulting in some extraordinary scenes during the Games' 12th edition over the past two weeks.
During the women's 10km marathon swim, two of the contestants became embroiled in a fight, with neither of them managing to finish the race.
In the wrestling -- newly reinstated as an Olympic sport -- a heavyweight fighter from Henan was bitten by an opponent from Inner Mongolia.
Online images showed him clutching his arm, heavily marked with red teeth-marks, and grimacing in agony at the referee.
But the most striking image was the Beijing women's rugby sevens team refusing to play the last minutes of their final against Shandong, accusing the referee of prejudice.
Clad in their yellow kit, they stood in a huddle and simply let their opponents run past them and repeatedly score, eventually losing 71-0.
The sport is in line for huge investment in China ahead of its introduction to the Olympics in 2016, and reports said Beijing officials had set its rugby teams high targets at the Games.
"It seems the match was thrown because of bad referee calls or injuries, but the farce at the games were a result of the sports system's obsession with medalling," sports sociologist Lu Yuanzhen at South China Normal University told the China Daily.
"For years, we've been calling for a change from the pursuit of medals, but elite competitive results remain major achievements in evaluating officials instead of achievements in promoting mass fitness," he added.
Some officials did their best to give their athletes an advantage even before the Games started.
Hubei province said its tennis team included local heroine and world number five Li Na, even though it was clear she would not be taking part as she was competing in the US Open.
However, the sly move gave Hubei's other tennis players an easier draw as collective world rankings counted towards the seedings.
In the synchronised swimming duet, Sichuan twins and favourites Jiang Wenwen and Jiang Tingting -- silver medallists at last month's world championships in Barcelona -- came only third in their last contest before retirement.
The gold instead went to a pair of swimmers from the host province, Liaoning.
The Jiangs refused to attend the post-event news conference, instead organising their own event where they wept as they criticised the judging.
Soon afterwards Jiang Tingting thanked their fans on her verified account on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo, adding bitterly: "We should thank the judge even more for helping us finish our swansong in third place. It's not that easy to be third in China after being second in the world!"
National games were first established in the final months of Imperial China, and the ruling Communist Party reinstated the event in 1959, with the People's Liberation Army topping the medals table at the first two editions.
China's emergence as a sporting powerhouse at international events like the Olympics, Asian Games and world aquatics championships has reduced the tournament's standing.
Even so, for some lower-ranked athletes the National Games are their only chance of a medal, fame and a comfortable retirement, leaving them sometimes desperate to succeed.
An official from the Shenyang National Games told AFP that he could not comment on the financial incentives for athletes or officials, but that the event had been a success.
Commenting on the women's rugby sevens, he added: "The team (Beijing) were not satisfied, but it is not important who comes first or second."