By Brenda Goh
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Defeats in sports dominated by China at previous Olympics have left the country in an unfamiliar third place on the medals table, with some predicting that Rio 2016 could witness the lowest haul in two decades.
Chinese athletes have so far failed to defend gold medals in some of their strongest events, such as badminton to diving, leading the country to sit behind the United States (28 golds) and Britain (19 golds) after 11 days of competition.
"You're kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to," state news agency Xinhua said on its official English-language Twitter account on Monday, alongside a photo of the medals tally. The tweet has since been deleted.
The ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily expressed particular disappointment at the performance of Chinese gymnasts, winners of just two bronze medals.
"People cannot but ponder - what on earth is up with them?" it wrote.
By the end of Tuesday's events, the team had accumulated 51 medals -- 17 golds, 15 silvers and 19 bronze -- and appear highly unlikely to get anywhere near the 38 gold medals China harvested in London four years ago.
"Since China's gold opportunities are concentrated in the first half, it will be hard for China to win more than 25 golds at this year's Olympics, the lowest of the last five Olympics," the China News Service said on Sunday.
China, which sent its largest overseas delegation of 416 athletes to Rio this year, won 16 golds in 1996 and 28 in 2000. It has ended the Games in second place since 2004 and boasted of a 51-gold bonanza in 2008, its highest ever tally, when it hosted the Beijing Olympics.
The disappointments began swiftly in Rio.
On the first day, former Olympic champion shooters Du Li and Yi Siling could only claim a silver and bronze, while swimmer Sun Yang came in second in the 400 meters freestyle event and then failed to qualify for the 1,500 meter freestyle final.
He was the London Olympic champion in both events.
In the men's synchronized three-meter springboard diving, Britain ended the eight-year reign of China, who took bronze. In badminton, China's formidable mixed doubles pairs and second-ranked women's doubles pair were eliminated.
The country's top sports officials had warned before the Olympics that the team faced a myriad of challenging factors, including unfamiliarity with South America, rule changes in some sports and the "diminishing dividend" of the 2008 Olympics.
"After Beijing was selected as the host city in 2001, China started a long-term talent training plan for the Games," China's General Administrator of Sport Gao Zhidan told Xinhua in July.
"The plan continues but is not as vigorous as then. That will be another challenge."
State media and internet users had already started to go easy on the athletes, who are cultivated through a sophisticated government-sponsored sports school system, after the medal haul trickled in the first few days of the Olympics.
Many commentators said that enjoying sport, rather than obsessing about gold medals, was increasingly important to China.
Reflecting this shift in expectations, a swimming bronze medalist has emerged as the biggest star of the Olympics in her homeland.
Fu Yuanhui has become a social media celebrity thanks to her candid and humorous pool-side interviews on topics ranging from menstruation to boys.
Ten million fans watched a recent interview she conducted live on a mobile app and she has been invited to appear on Chinese variety shows once back in China
"The Chinese people have made progress, we don't need gold medals to boost our confidence and are no longer as harsh on our athletes," said one user on China's Twitter-like Weibo.
"What we chase now is the gold standard Fu Yuanhui reflects in her humor and innocence."
(Additional reporting by Gao Liangping and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by John O'Brien)