Saturday, August 09, 2008

2008 Beijing Olympics: China aim to end the American dream and conquer the world

Former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was famously asked if he considered the French Revolution to have been a success: he paused briefly before venturing the opinion that it was really much too early to judge.

Old China used to take its time and preferred to think in terms of centuries rather than decades when confronting big issues.

That has all changed in the new modern China, where everything seemingly happens at 1,000mph, from the 48-storey tower block growing before your eyes to the elegant translators at the Olympic press conference who conduct their work with breathtaking speed and efficiency, making dreary officials sound razor-sharp and interesting.

There is a plan for everything and everything has a plan. That now includes sport and, in particular, Olympic sport. You will not therefore be surprised to learn that China’s rise to prominence as an economic superpower is mirrored almost exactly by its rise to prominence as a sporting superpower.

Although China made an impressive Olympic debut in 1984, the Los Angeles Games were boycotted by the Soviet bloc and China’s medal tally therefore was inflated accordingly. The first “global” Olympics featuring China was in Seoul in 1988 when they finished in 11th place with five gold, 11 silver and 12 bronze medals.

That same year China was ranked 10th in the world in terms of gross domestic product. Yet in Athens four years ago China had climbed to second in the medals table with a staggering 32 golds – not to mention 17 silvers and 14 bronzes – to finish runners-up to the United States.

Meanwhile, the economic miracle that is modern-day China has resulted – no matter what criteria economists employ – in the People’s Republic climbing to second place in that table as well. They are chasing the United States hard on both fronts now.

It might not be a message entirely at one with their Communist ideals but clearly increased wealth and purchasing power can be used, in part, to buy international sporting success. Having 1.3 billion citizens to select from also helps.

Regardless of your politics and views on the regime presiding in Beijing and the way they execute their grandiose plans, China is a considerable sporting success story. And they have achieved that from a culture barely acquainted with many of the world’s great mass participation sports.

They have targeted their sports carefully and ruthlessly. In fact, the entire operation is called Project 119 because the Chinese think tank believe there are 119 gold medals that, given time, money and the correct coach, they should at least be able to compete for. That may be blue sky thinking in the land of 'permasmog’ and haze but by aiming for the stars it is possible to still be successful despite falling short of expectations. The Chinese are naturally talented at table tennis and badminton and they have thrown their resources at diving, weightlifting, gymnastics, shooting and judo – sports which are rich in medals.

China has won 16 of the 20 gold medals awarded by table tennis since it became an Olympic event in 1988 and eight gold medals – and 22 medals in all – in badminton since it was introduced four years later.

Chinese divers have won 20 gold medals in the last six Games and China has also garnered 14 golds in shooting. Weightlifting has brought in 16 golds – five in Athens – and the Chinese have traditionally excelled at gymnastics (10 golds so far and 16 other medals) though there was consternation that they managed only one gold in Athens. The backlash has seen them dominate recent World Championships and they are expected to figure prominently again on home territory.

China's medal haul



It is these core sports they will again rely on, but elsewhere progress has been made on the athletics track. Liu Xiang’s gold medal in the 110 metres hurdles in Athens and at the 2007 World Championships were a major breakthrough and his Olympic campaign will be a centrepoint of these Games. Their swimming is also improving and, rather against the odds, they are beginning to build a basketball team based around 7ft 6in Yao Ming to compete against the very best. They start with a bang on Sunday with an eagerly awaited match against America’s 'Dream Team’.

Athletes like Liu want for nothing. He allegedly has a team of 30 specialist coaches, nutritionists, physiologists, physiotherapists and gurus in the background though even they could not prevent him picking up a hamstring strain last month.

Since Athens, China has employed more than 50 foreign coaches across the full spectrum of sports ranging from American Michael Bastian in softball, Japan’s synchronised swimming guru Masayo Imura to Poland’s canoeing coach Marek Ploch. Watersports such as canoeing, sailing and synchronised swimming are the latest targeted sports with the maximum medal potential.

“The luck of participating in an Olympics held in our motherland is a once-in-a-century opportunity and a dream that our predecessors have fought to fulfil for 100 years,” sports minister

Liu Peng told a team rally recently. “This is a historical chance for us ... we are burdened with a glorious mission.”

With the start of the Games now on us and Beijing awash with politicians and VIPs, the Chinese appear to be back-tracking a little and, at least in public, denying there is a dog-eat-dog fight with the Americans to top the medal table. But once the first starting gun fires and the first misty-eyed Chinese gold medallist stands on the podium, patriotic fervour will take over. Where will it all end?

Mr Zhou Enlai is long gone, but I would suggest it is much too early to venture an opinion.

Three other Chinese hopefuls (By Tom Knight )

Cheng Fei
Born: May 29, 1988
Competing in the vault, floor and team events, she was a triple gold medallist at the 2006 World Championships and has had a vault routine named after her, ranking her alongside such iconic figures as Nadia Comaneci. 'The Cheng’ is a round-off, half-turn with a 540 degree twist. Don’t try it at home.

Guo Jingjing
Born: Oct 15, 1981
Competing in the 3 metre springboard synchronised and individual events, the double Olympic champion from Athens is tipped to do it again in Beijing. This is the sport where China can expect a major input of gold medals and Guo is one of their superstars with an unpredictable temperament to match.

Zhou Chunxiu
Born: Nov 15, 1978
British fans will remember Zhou from her London Marathon triumph in 2007, when her time put her among the world elite. She, above all the runners and most notably Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, will be more at home in the choking atmosphere expected during the Olympic marathon here in Beijing.

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