China's Olympic golden haul breaks old duopoly

BEIJING (Reuters) - The debate over which nation would top the gold medal table at the Beijing Olympics was already well over by the time Chinese boxer Zou Shiming won the host nation’s 50th gold medal on Sunday.

After four years of playing down expectations, China’s medal-winning machine smashed the duopoly of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, one or the other of whom had topped the table at every Games since World War Two.

Chinese sports officials had said the country’s weakness in athletics and swimming would make it hard for them to improve on a record 32 gold medals and second place at the 2004 Athens Games. They won 51 golds and a total of 100 medals.

Hosting the Games can certainly be a double-edged sword with the pressure of performing on home soil having to be measured against the boost to athletes from partisan crowds.

Shooter Du Li’s failure to win the first gold of the Games was a result of the former but she bounced back to win gold in another event and China out-performed their expectations in team sports.

The United States, who won most golds at the previous three Games, ended second in the table with 36 golds to match their Athens tally and won the overall medal count with 110 golds, silvers and bronzes.

“We consider this one of our most successful Olympic Games ever,” U.S. Olympic Committee president Jim Scherr told the American media.

“The team will surpass the total medal count in Athens, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. We earned medals and high finishes in sports and disciplines we did not think we could do a few short years ago.”

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The Soviet Union topped the medal count for two decades from 1972 to 1992 barring the 1984 Games in Los Angeles that they boycotted.

Russia recovered from a poor first week to finish third in the table with 23 golds and a total of 72 medals.

Despite losing a slew of athletics medal hopefuls to a doping scandal just before the Games, the Russians are confident they are on an upward trajectory again after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s weakened their own sports system.

“We suffered during the (President Boris) Yeltsin years,” said Gennady Shvets, spokesman for the Russian Olympic Committee.

“Stadiums and playing fields were destroyed and good coaches left the system. All the young women and men who would have come into sport, we lost that generation. We’re feeling that now.”

With the support of former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, though, a special Olympic fund had raised $40 million from oligarchs to provide an income for some 2,000 elite athletes and coaches, Shvets said.

The trouble with such optimism is that the rise of the Chinese, who won 15 golds at the Summer Games in 1984, shows no sign of having peaked.

China’s state sports system, which encompasses 30,000 elite athletes, produced its ritual dominance in weightlifting, gymnastics, diving, table tennis, badminton, shooting and women’s judo.

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But gold medals also came from new quarters like Zou’s breakthrough in boxing, while more than half of China’s Olympic titles came from athletes who had not competed at the Games before.

“A total of 25 individual gold medals were won by athletes who are making their Olympic debuts and they were also the main force for four gold medals in team events,” said Sports Minister Liu Peng.

If the initiative to improve China’s medal chances on the track and in the pool -- which was started after Athens -- bears more fruit than the single gold won in Beijing, China look set to rule the roost for a long time to come.

For China and its government, this was never just about the Beijing Olympics but a project for the restoration of national pride as old as the People’s Republic itself.

“Once derided as the ‘sick man of Asia’, China has returned to the Olympics for 24 years and set its name straight,” the semi-official China News Service said on Sunday.

Editing by Ralph Gowling