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The end of the U.S.-Soviet Olympic animosity has opened the door for China, which makes no bones about its desire to best the Americans, and Chinese media have been fueling that fire.

“For the longest time, the U.S. has occupied an enviably insurmountable position in the Olympic medal tally, one that matches its superpower status,” the Sun editorial says. “But since China re-joined the Olympic fray in the 1980s, it has been scoring ever more medals in every successive game. That also is emblematic of China’s ever-strengthening economy. It goes without saying that in the London Games, all eyes will be on how China and the U.S. duke it out on the medal chart.”

In recent years, the Chinese have closed the gap. In the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, China took home 63 medals, 40 fewer than the U.S.; in 2008, China claimed 100 medals, 10 fewer than the U.S.

For Chinese athletes, an Olympic victory would elevate them to rock-star status, especially if it comes at the expense of the United States.

“Athletes feel obliged to bring glory to both the country and their families,” said Julie Wang, a senior international officer at Leeds University in England who grew up in China. “After winning a medal, especially a gold one, they are secured almost for life, both financially and socially.”

Trouble in the water

With politics as the backdrop, U.S. and Chinese athletes have taken verbal jabs at each other. The Chinese were criticized after their top female swimmer, 16-year-old Ye Shiwen, set the Olympic record in the 400-meter individual medley, shaving five seconds off the old record and swimming the last leg of the race faster than American male swimmer and gold medalist Ryan Lochte.

Many observers, most notably American John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, have speculated that Ye’s performance was too good to be true.

“The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this — ‘unbelievable’ — history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved,” he told British media.

Mr. Leonard went on to compare Ye’s performance with that of East German athletes, who were notorious for their use of steroids during the Cold War, as well as Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, now Michelle de Bruin, who was caught in a doping scandal after the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. “We want to be very careful about calling it doping,” he said.

The U.S. Olympic Team quickly distanced itself from his comments, though pundits and analysts have shared his speculation.

Ye called the accusations a case of “sour grapes” but said the American suspicions have tainted her victory.

They also have angered many in the Chinese Olympic delegation, who have responded with tit-for-tat accusations leveled at the top U.S. performer, Michael Phelps, who this week became the most decorated Olympian.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted China’s former Olympic doctor questioning Phelps’ achievements and insinuating performance-enhancing skullduggery dating back to Mr. Phelps’ record-breaking accomplishments at the Beijing Games.

“The Americans have made many extraordinary performances, but without evidence, we have kept silent,” said Chen Zhanghao, who himself has been linked to doping Chinese athletes. “I suspect Phelps, but without evidence, I have to recognize that we should be grounded in facts.”

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