- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

BEIJING | With the Summer Olympic Games taking place on its home soil, China has entered the formerly two-nation medal derby that the U.S. and Russia have waged for years.

Are the Chinese making for a three-way rivalry?

“They’re much stronger than in 2004, and we really look at this as a three-country race with China leading the way over the U.S. and Russia,” said Steve Roush, director of sports performance at the United States Olympic Committee. “It will be a matter of what happens every day of the games.”

China’s 32 gold medals in Athens in 2004 ranked second, and its 63 medals overall ranked third. It was a slight improvement for the Chinese team, which won 28 gold medals in Sydney in 2000, good for third, and 59 medals overall (third).

“I said in Athens those games were the games of the awakening in Asia,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said. “Japan doubled its gold medal tally, Korea had a good medal tally and China came quite close to the United States of America in terms of gold medals. I expect the rise of Asia in general to continue, and this of course will include China.”

But for years, the games have not included China at all. After sending three athletes to the Summer Olympics in 1952, China pulled out of the 1956 games when the International Olympic Committee recognized Taiwan as a participant. China did not return until the Winter Games of 1980 in Lake Placid.

Because China had not participated in the Summer Olympics since 1952, Peter Ueberroth, the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, thought the possibility of luring the Chinese to the 1984 Los Angeles Games was remote. The Soviet Union already had announced its defection along with other communist countries after the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.

But China participated in 1984 and began a journey it hopes will culminate this month in Beijing by overtaking the United States atop the medal table.

Mr. Ueberroth, a businessman who turned his 1984 success into a stint as commissioner of Major League Baseball, will be watching as the head of the United States Olympic Committee.

“In 1984, we were worried if they would come and when they came, our first reaction was gratitude,” he said Wednesday. “The second reaction when they won the first event was, ‘Wow, these guys are good.’”

Since coming back to the Olympics, the Chinese have made steady progress and averaged 47.6 medals per Summer Olympics.

For the past seven years, the work has been pointed to the 17 days it hosts these games.

“[Watching in 1984], I clearly expected them to be a dominant team in the Olympic Games for many, many years,” Mr. Ueberroth said. “We’re going to do our best. We’re not used to being the Summer Olympic underdog. But we’ll get used to it and try our best.”

How the U.S. and China get to the podium is different.

The U.S. is all about the marquee sports: basketball, gymnastics, track and field and swimming. Those medals could make up nearly half of its projected total of around 100.

China, realizing it couldn’t match the U.S. in swimming and track and field (it will do well in gymnastics), instead shifted its concentration and efforts to a series of non-glamour sports: diving, table tennis, badminton, shooting and weight lifting. The Chinese could win a combined 40 medals in those events.

In the marquee sports, China’s medal hopes are boxer Zou Shiming, hurdler Liu Xiang, men’s gymnasts Yang Wei, Xiao Qin and Chen Yibing and women’s gymnasts Yang Yilin and Cheng Fei. It even will have a high-profile presence in men’s basketball, where Yao Ming will lead a team that has two other players with NBA experience against the heavily favored United States.

“Certainly the majority of the pollsters are picking China to win the medal count,” said USOC Chief Executive Officer Jim Scherr. “We certainly believe they have a strong team. We have a strong team. … We think the competition is wonderful. It gives us something to shoot at and it bolsters our efforts, makes us focus our resources and makes us get better.”

With shiny new facilities to be used after the games, a sports academy program that identifies and trains young athletes and the presence of 12 foreign-born coaches, China can’t be called out for raring up for an on-home-soil Olympics only to fall back down to earth.

“We certainly believe it is a system that will be very long-lived,” Mr. Scherr said. “This is not a one-shot system for the Chinese. The sports infrastructure, the facilities, the coaches being developed here and the young people who will be inspired by these games, we think it will be a formidable system we will have to contend with for a long time.”

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