Chinese state media have censored images of Mao badges worn by two Chinese cycling gold medalists amid an investigation into whether the badges broke Olympic rules.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has asked the Chinese team for a report on why cyclists Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi wore badges featuring the head of China's late supreme leader Mao Zedong when they appeared on the podium for the medal ceremony.
"We contacted the Chinese Olympic Committee and asked them for a report on the situation," IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said. "We are looking into the matter."
Bao and Zhong won gold in the women's cycling team sprint at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday.
Last month, the IOC relaxed Rule 50 banning political displays to allow gestures like taking the knee on the field of play, but athletes are still banned from making political gestures while on the podium.
The IOC is also investigating a crossed-arms gesture made on the podium by U.S. shotput silver medalist Raven Saunders, which she said was an expression of support for the oppressed.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter bans any form of political, religious, or nationalistic propaganda or publicity at Olympics venues.
A Maoist blogger with the handle Red Soldier took aim at the investigation as a form of "Western arrogance," but also complained bitterly that Chinese state media had censored the images of the Mao badges from footage and photos of the medals ceremony for audiences inside China.
"The thing that makes me really angry is that all domestic media outlets in China edited out the Mao badges from the chests of the athletes in their reports," the blogger wrote.
'Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong'
The post included several screenshots showing plain white where the badges appeared in international media coverage.
The post's views were echoed by large numbers of online comments after the censorship came to light on Tuesday, with many comments reading: "Without Chairman Mao there would be no new China."
Mao badges, once a must-have accessory to demonstrate political kudos and loyalty before the Great Helmsman's death in 1976, have since become collectors' items, with a resurgence in popularity under the rule of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping.
"Historically, Mao Zedong's image represents China's transition from traditional society into modern civilization, and the way it left behind its old image as the sick man of Asia," Xia Ming, professor of politics at New York's City University, told RFA.
He said the rest of the world tends to associate Mao badges with widespread death and political persecution during that period of Chinese history.
U.S.-based political commentator Chen Pokong said the resurgence of Mao badges is a relatively recent phenomenon.
"This is a strange phenomenon of the Xi Jinping era," Chen told RFA.
"Mao is one of the three big butchers: Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong," he said. "Imagine a German athlete wearing a Hitler badge or a Russian athlete with a Stalin badge."
"This is naturally going to cause an international public outcry."
CCP loyalty display
Commentators said the athletes were likely making a statement of loyalty to the CCP by wearing the badges, however.
"These athletes and Olympic teams are all part of party organizations," Chen Pokong told RFA. "According to Xi Jinping, the party leads in all things, and takes priority over everything."
"So it's possible that these athletes were encouraged [to wear these badges] by the CCP," Chen said.
Germany-based artist Yang Weidong said the CCP has always regarded winning Olympic gold medals as a political project.
"I think they would have been told to do this by their coach or team leader," said Yang, whose mother is a former Chinese national athletics team medic. "In such an environment, everything is dictated by the political goals of the CCP."
"People wear these things to try to please the Great Helmsman Chairman Xi."
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Jane Tang, Yitong Wu and Chingman.