Women's 400m runners go viral on Chinese social media 'for looking like men'

The issue of gender in Chinese athletics has become a trending topic on social media, the Chinese state-owned newspaper People's Daily reported.

This has happened because of the appearance of the winner and silver medallist in the women's 400m at the recent National Track and Field Championships Finals in Daqing, Heilongjiang province.

Liao Mengxue and Tong Zenghuan finished first and second in 53.25 seconds and 53.35 respectively, nearly two seconds ahead of the runner in third place.

The pair have since had their gender called into question because of their appearance, with Chinese social media users suggesting "they look like men". One commented that, "The voice is too male when interviewed!"

This is not the first time the pair have come under scrutiny on social media, with their success at the July 2019 National Athletics Championships held in Shenyang also attracting comment.

They were part of the 4x400m relay and their Hunan team strolled to gold by almost three seconds. Liao also won the 400m with Tong taking bronze.

Both competed, along with Hunan 4x400m teammate He Wei, for China in the event at the IAAF World Relay Championships in Yokohama, Japan, in May.

Despite the Chinese Athletics Association reportedly declaring that the two runners are female, netizens are not letting the issue go.

It has now spread to English-language social media, with posts on Twitter and comments on the People's Daily post on their Facebook page, which has 68 million likes.

A picture of 4 athletes, who won the Women's 4x400 Relay at the annual Chinese Athletics Championships, has become a...

Posted by People's Daily, China on Monday, August 26, 2019

"Lots of netizens say judging from how they look or how they speak it's hard to tell that Liao and Tong are women," People's Daily wrote. "The Chinese Athletic Association later announced that both athletes are women. What's your take on this?"

Many social media users have defended the athletes as female, while others offered their congratulations.

"It's gotta suck that you accomplish something so great just to be ripped apart on social media. People are petty. They're just jealous because they live unfulfilling lives," wrote Greg Osborne.

Other users preferred to pile on the doubt.

The story has also featured in Chinese-language media outside the mainland.

"Are there sexes in Chinese sports?" was the question from Hong Kong-based news site On.cc in their coverage.

The issue of gender in athletics has become a discussion topic in recent years because of South African runner Caster Semenya.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.