BEIJING (Reuters) - China has spent the last two years downplaying its chances of leapfrogging the Americans at the top of the Olympic medals table in Beijing, but the race for global sporting supremacy still looks like a close one.
China produced its best gold medal tally since its 1984 return to the Summer Games to finish second (32) behind the United States (36) at the last Olympics in Athens in 2004.
The boost from playing hosts in 2008 plus the investment in elite sports, particularly for the Beijing Games, led to an expectation that China could supplant the Americans, who have ruled the roost since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, Chinese sporting officials, perhaps in an attempt to reduce the pressure on their athletes and anxious not to leave a hostage to fortune for the post-Games reckoning, have tried to dampen expectations.
“Basically we are not yet a strong nation in sport, we must be practical and realistic. We’ve got only Liu Xiang for athletics and I don’t see much hope in swimming,” deputy sports minister Cui Dalin said in March.
The pessimism professed by Cui and his colleagues is an admission that the “119 project,” which aimed to boost China’s chances of winning a share of the gold medals awarded in athletics, swimming, canoeing, kayaking and sailing, has failed.
Certainly beyond world champion 110 meters hurdler Liu and a clutch of women marathon runners, China’s track and field hopes are bleak and the secret battalion of Chinese world-beating swimmers one American coach prophesied has not emerged.
China failed to win a title at last year’s swimming world championships in Melbourne and the retirement of Athens women’s 100-metre breaststroke champion Luo Xuejuan has deprived them of their only genuine gold medal contender.
In athletics, Athens 10,000 meters champion Xing Huina will be absent because of a leg injury, while 2003 world bronze medalist Sun Yingjie’s return from a doping ban came too late for her to regain form for a shot at the 10,000 in Beijing.
Even Liu’s title defence is by no means a foregone conclusion after Cuban Dayron Robles bettered his world record last month.
China will, though, have its biggest ever Olympic team for Beijing with about 613 athletes, plenty of whom have a good chance of standing on the top step of the podium next month.
Table tennis (four gold medals available), diving (8), gymnastics (14), shooting (15), weightlifting (15), badminton (5), rowing (14) and taekwondo (8) should provide several Chinese champions.
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) analyses world championship results in Olympic sports and the data from the last two years suggest China did not peak in Athens.
“The top eight results for 2006 and 2007 show how strong the Chinese medal chances are as they won the 2006 gold medal count and had a solid performance again in 2007,” Steve Roush, the USOC’s sports performance chief, said by e-mail.
The USOC analysis of 2007 results gives the hosts 37 gold medals to the 47 of the U.S., while the total medals showing (87 to 100 for the U.S.) point to Chinese strength in depth.
Accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has predicted the total medal counts for each country based on past performance, economics and political planning for the last three Games.
Its 2008 report gives China a rise of 25 golds, silvers and bronzes for its home Olympics, putting it top of table with 88 compared to 87 for the U.S., which is predicted to drop by 16 medals compared Athens.
“The combination of the home country effect and the state support for sport... is expected to lead to a particularly significant boost to Chinese medal performance, allowing them to challenge the U.S. for top position in the medal table,” read the report.
Cui’s message, though, seems to have got through to the Chinese people, certainly if a random sample of Beijingers on the streets surrounding the vast sports ministry compounds in the south of the city last week is anything to go by.
“I don’t think China will top the medals table,” said a school caretaker in his 50s surnamed Zhang. “In table tennis, China will do well but besides that it will be difficult.”
A designer, Li Xiaobo, predicted about 40 gold medals for the hosts and reflected the thoughts of many in China, who believe performing on home soil will prove to be a double-edged sword.
“We could have the most gold medals but in total medals, the U.S. will be stronger,” the designer said.
(additional reporting by Liu Zhen; Editing by John O’Brien)