BEIJING (Reuters) - After nearly ending the U.S. hegemony over the Olympic medal table in Athens four years ago, China could overtake their sporting superpower rivals in the race for global supremacy in Beijing.
It will be close, with the Americans a powerhouse in athletics and in the pool with medal machine Michael Phelps, but U.S. officials have already seen enough to suffer sleepless nights.
One fact alone puts it all into perspective: China has a population of 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States.
Numbers alone do not guarantee success of course, if they did India would also be an Olympic giant.
“You start doing the math, and that’s what keeps me up at night,” Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s sports performance chief, said recently of sport’s new East-West rivalry.
The United States and the former Soviet Union, now fragmented since the end of the Cold War, have between them ruled the roost in every Olympics since the first post-World War Two Games in London in 1948.
In 1996 and 2000, the Americans beat the Russians in the final tables but Athens saw a geo-political shift, with China finishing second overall with 32 golds to the U.S. team’s 36. They had been third in 2000, fourth in 1996 and 1992.
Four years on from Athens, China has spared no expense in the final push to the summit.
China’s rise to the top has been marked by rapid strides since the Communist country ended years of isolation and returned to the Olympic fold in 1984.
Prior to their participation in the Los Angeles Games, boycotted by the Soviets in retaliation for the Americans shunning Moscow four years earlier, the Chinese had never won a medal.
Liu Changchun had written a footnote in the Olympic annals when he marched at the opening ceremony for the 1932 Los Angeles Games as sole representative of the then-400 million Chinese but he finished last in his first round 100 and 200 meters heats.
Fifty-two years later, the Chinese made a far more impressive arrival. Gymnast Li Ning won more medals than any other athlete at those Games and went home with three golds, two silvers and a bronze.
Free pistol shooter Xu Haifeng, a fertilizer salesman, had the honor of winning his country’s first Olympic medal as well as first gold.
This time, as host nation, China will have its biggest Olympic team yet with some 630 athletes, many of whom have a good chance of standing on the top step of the podium.
Table tennis, diving, gymnastics, shooting, weightlifting, badminton, rowing and taekwondo should all witness outpourings of national pride.
The key to China’s recent surge is the state sports system, a pyramid structure that takes children as young as six and trains them into the champions of tomorrow. The hours are long and the competition for places intense despite critics condemning the facilities as military-style hothouses.
Within that there is the ‘119 Project’, an intensive program launched after Beijing was awarded the Games, to focus on that third of Olympic sports in which Chinese athletes were not traditionally strong. At the time, the sports accounted for 119 medals but the number has since increased to 122.
Chinese officials have tried to dampen the mounting expectations, even if the underlying aim remains unchanged.
When Zhang Haifeng, spokesman for the Chinese Olympic Committee, told a news conference last month that China was aiming for more than 32 golds, his comments were overruled.
“The Chinese Olympic Committee has never made predictions about the medals,” a statement said.
Others, looking from outside, are less reticent.
“Team USA will be hard pressed to maintain its supremacy at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing,” said former U.S. Olympic Committee member Curt Hamakawa, now director of the Center for International Sport Business at Western New England College.
“In terms of its gold-medal progression since 1996 (16 in 1996, 28 in 2000, and 32 in 2004), China is clearly poised to overtake Team USA in 2008.
“This is all the more plausible given the United States’ gold-medal regression over this same period (44 in ‘96, 38 in ‘00 and 36 in ‘04).”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Jeremy Laurence