BEIJING (Reuters) - China go into the sixth day of the Olympics on Thursday ahead of sporting arch-rivals the United States in the medals table despite Michael Phelps’s exploits.
After becoming the all-time most successful Olympian with 11 career golds, American swimming phenomenon Phelps faces a relatively quieter day with just one semi-final to contest.
Topping the medals table is a tangible sign of China’s new global status and Beijing has invested heavily in a Soviet-style sports system that finds potential champions at an early age.
Following another great day for its gymnastic, diving, weightlifting and shooting teams, China headed the overnight medals table with 17 golds to 10 for the United States.
South Korea and Germany followed with six golds while Italy, Australia and Japan had four.
Mirroring its increasing economic clout, China have replaced America’s old Cold War foe Russia as their main Olympics rival.
So with American-dominated track events to start at the end of this week, the hosts face an intriguing battle to go one better than their second place in the overall 2004 Athens table.
Chinese fans have roared on their country’s every success in Beijing but are playing down the significance of coming first.
“What is important is to show China and to show Beijing to the whole world,” said local businessman Sun Weiming, 46.
“Several months ago, everyone was talking about Tibet but foreigners need to know the truth about China, and we believe that through the Olympic Games the world will know the truth.”
A dazzling opening ceremony followed by five magnificent days of sport have, indeed, displaced the Western media’s pre-Olympic spotlight on rights issues like Chinese rule in Tibet.
Many Chinese resent the focus on that and Beijing’s smog at a moment of national pride, though they remain scrupulously kind and hospitable to visitors for the Olympics. Critics say Beijing is using the Games to gloss over suppression of dissent.
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Phelps, 23, took two more golds in the Water Cube on Wednesday to make it five so far in Beijing after six in Athens.
“To be the most decorated Olympian of all time ... it’s a pretty cool title,” he said.
The 30,000 journalists covering the August 8-24 Games are running out of superlatives for the man who now has passed an elite pantheon on nine golds, including fellow Americans Mark Spitz the swimmer and Carl Lewis the sprinter and long-jumper.
The other two with nine golds are Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” distance runner, and Larysa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast.
Phelps has the comparatively easy matter of a 200 meters individual medley semi-final on Thursday before continuing his quest to beat Spitz’s record of seven golds in a single Games.
Also in the pool, world record breakers Eamon Sullivan of Australia and Alain Bernard of France will face each other in the showpiece 100 meters freestyle final.
The most decorated Asian swimmer of all time, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, seeks a second gold in the 200m breaststroke.
The youngest male athlete in the Beijing Olympics, 13-year-old Dwayne Didon from the Seychelles who only started swimming at nine, competes in the 50m freestyle heats.
Although from an Indian Ocean archipelago of 115 islands, Didon grew up in a highland village and came late to water.
“When my friends at school heard the news (of me going to the Olympics) they thought I was playing a joke on them,” he said.
On land, or rather in the air, Chinese gymnast Yang Wei, unbeaten on the international stage since 2006, is favorite to add to the hosts’ gold medal tally in the all-round final.
As well as successfully shifting focus away from politics to sport, China appears to have overcome a couple of embarrassing public relations issues.
Bloggers and others have taken Beijing to task for super-imposing fireworks over television images of the city at the opening ceremony and keeping a young singer out of sight while a more photogenic girl lip-synched for the cameras.
Critics have questioned Beijing’s methods in its zeal to impress the world. But officials have argued such techniques are common around the world.
With a population of 1.3 billion people glued to the Olympics, pressure on Chinese athletes has been enormous.
Some have buckled, others have thrived.
“It was the heavens, the earth and the people all working in my favor,” shooter Chen Ying said after winning a gold where two of her fancied team mates had failed to deliver.
Reporting by Beijing Olympic bureau, editing by Ralph Gowling
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