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By Brenda Goh
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Heavy defeats in sports dominated by China in previous Olympics have left the country languishing in an unfamiliar third place in the medals table, with some predicting that Rio 2016 could see the country's worst haul since 1996.
Chinese athletes have so far failed to defend their gold medals in sports from badminton to diving, being unceremoniously kicked out at early stages or having to make do with silver or bronze, leading the country to rank behind the United States and Britain.
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"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.
China's gold-medal count at the halfway mark in Rio stood at 13, far less than the 25 golds obtained by the same point in London. By Tuesday, the team had accumulated 48 medals -- 15 golds, 15 silvers and 18 bronze.
"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 managed to claim only a silver and bronze, while swimmer Sun Yang came in second in the 400 meters freestyle event and failed to qualify for the 1,500 meter freestyle race. He was the London Olympic champion in both events.
In the men's synchronised three-meter springboard diving, Britain ended the eight-year reign of China who took bronze. Its domination of badminton was also shaken when its 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 difficulties from a myriad of 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," Gao Zhidan, China's General Administrator of Sport, 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 begun to go easy on the athletes, who are cultivated from young through a sophisticated government-sponsored sports school system, after few medals were won 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, a bronze medalist swimmer, rather than one of the winners of the 15 golds China has accumulated to date, has emerged as the biggest star of the Olympics so far at home.
Fu Yuanhui has become a social media celebrity thanks to her candid and humorous pool-side interviews on topics from periods 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 humour and innocence."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)