HONG KONG — The tense U.S.-Chinese relationship is playing out on the Olympic stage as accusations of doping and poor sportsmanship on both sides — and a thirst to one-up each other in medal count — highlight the friction between the world's only superpower and its burgeoning Asian rival.
Forget the Cold War. This is the gold, silver and bronze war.
While the two nations are in a close race for overall medals, with the United States holding a 37-34 lead Thursday, the games themselves have taken an edgier turn, with finger-pointing and name-calling, which intensified after one Chinese women's badminton doubles team was disqualified Wednesday for throwing its match in order to draw a weaker rival in a later round.
U.S. athletic heavyweights, such as tennis star Serena Williams, blasted the Chinese for the dishonor they have brought on the Olympic Games. "No one wants to tank never, never, never in competition," she said.
In Hong Kong, a recent editorial in the Sun tabloid charged that crushing the U.S. at the London Games wouldn't be just a sports victory; it would dispel all doubts that China has become a near equal to the U.S. in economic might.
The Olympic bad blood is merely a backdrop to a larger issue as China tries to use the games as a platform to show that it has become a major player on the world stage, a strategy that began with the 2008 games in Beijing.
"It's tied in with this story that the [Communist] Party is trying to tell: China is developing, and it's taking its place at the top, and sport gets mixed up in that," said Daniel R. Hammond, who lectures in Chinese politics and society at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
"There's an element there in how the Chinese government views itself, how it wants to be viewed internationally, and the image it wants to project of a nation taking its place in the world," he said.
A history of gamesmanship
It's not the first time international politics and global tensions have dominated the games.
In 1936, Adolf Hitler attempted to use the Berlin Olympics to showcase Nazi Germany, but U.S. track-and-field star Jesse Owens' four gold medals undermined that effort, disproving Hitler's boasts of Aryan superiority in front of the world.
The 1964 games in Tokyo were a chance for Japan to revel in the progress it had made since World War II, which devastated its economy.
Perhaps the most famous victory in American Olympic history was the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the Soviets at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. That win has entered the sports and social lexicon as the "Miracle on Ice."
A few months later, the U.S. boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets followed suit four years later by refusing to take part in the Los Angeles Summer Games.
Russia's Olympic performance has waned considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union, and its longtime rivalry with the U.S. largely has become an afterthought. In 1988, Soviet athletes led the board with 132 medals overall. In the London Games, Russians are placing 11th overall, with 11 medals, far below the hauls of competitors from the U.S., China, Japan and other nations.
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."
Mr. Leonard, meanwhile, has stuck to his insinuations, telling Yahoo Sports: "If people don't speak out when they see something suspicious, the public is going to think nonsensical splits were real. Then doping is going to have free reign for anything we don't know about right now. It's an anomaly. Regardless of where it comes from — take China's history completely out of it — an anomaly needs to be pointed out. And it's the only anomaly of the week."
It is not unusual for rivals to accuse one another, without evidence, of cheating, but it is rare that they happen on nationalistic lines.
There is no evidence that Ye has cheated. But China's swim teams have failed drug tests in the past. Eleven swimmers failed steroid tests at the 1994 Asian Games. In addition, human growth hormone was found in one Chinese swimmer's locker, and four Chinese athletes tested positive at the 1998 World Championships. Since 1990, 40 Chinese swimmers have failed drug tests.
Despite the U.S.-Chinese bitterness, fans of the Games in London seemed largely oblivious of the rivalry, and many are taking pride in the impact of Britain's Olympic showcase.
"I thought the opening ceremony was fantastic. I'm usually quite skepticalof opening ceremonies, but this one was spectacular," said Patrick McDaid, an assistant manager at a shop in South London. "It was quirky enough for us Brits, and it really got people talking. Everyone seems to be in good spirits."
• Special correspondent Pete Carvill reported from Berlin, special correspondent Violet Law reported from Hong Kong, and Ben Wolfgang reported from Washington. Special correspondent Mark Briggs in London contributed to this report.