(Bloomberg) -- Olympians the world over compete for the glory of their nation. At the Beijing Games next month, China’s athletes will be trying to bring home the gold for Xi Jinping. 

Chinese Olympians led by speed skater Wu Dajing pledged to “repay the leader no matter what” as part of series of chants Wednesday in Tiananmen Square to show national pride ahead of the opening ceremony next week.

Besides the implication that the athletes owed something to Xi personally, the remark was notable because the word used for “leader” -- “lingxiu” -- was once reserved for Mao Zedong. 

The word carries special weight in China because of its close association with Mao, whose chaotic reign caused the Communist Party to disavow personality cults even while upholding his status as a national patriarch. The term is “bestowed to a leader who enjoys the highest prestige, who is the most capable and who is widely recognized,” the state-run Global Times newspaper said in 2018, citing a professor of party ideology. 

The sporadic use of “lingxiu” by state media has been cited as evidence that Xi is seeking to build his own personality cult, after securing his status as the party’s “core” leader in 2016. The concern is out in the open enough for the Propaganda Department to argue in a party document in August that upholding Xi’s core leadership “in no way involves the creation of any kind of personality cult.” 

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Sensitivity over describing Xi as a leader like Mao may explain state media’s low-key coverage of that part of the athletes chants. Video clips containing that part of the event circulated on state media accounts only briefly before being replaced by ones showing the Olympians pledging to work hard for the motherland and not to let the people down. 

The word’s appearance at a kickoff ceremony for the Games, shows how Xi’s using the international sporting event to further bolster his standing before a party congress later this year in which he’s expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term as leader.

In November, the party published a resolution affirming Xi’s status as a leader on par with Mao and Deng Xiaoping, who both ruled the nation until they died.

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