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Archive for Sunday, July 13, 2008

China thinking small to take gold-medal crown

Researchers predicting United States to challenge for top spot

A man cycles past workers Saturday setting up billboards highlighting the different sports happening during the Olympic Games in Beijing. The Chinese capital is increasing publicity in the final push toward the premier summer sporting event.

A man cycles past workers Saturday setting up billboards highlighting the different sports happening during the Olympic Games in Beijing. The Chinese capital is increasing publicity in the final push toward the premier summer sporting event.

July 13, 2008

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— Yao Ming is China's best-known and richest athlete, a towering icon of the Beijing Olympics and a symbol of the nation's rapid rise in the last three decades.

But when it comes to the Chinese Olympic plans, Du Li and Yang Lian matter as much or more than the Houston Rockets center.

Du, competing in the 10-meter air rifle, and Yang, in 48-kilogram (106-pound) women's weightlifting, each have a chance to capture their nation's first gold medal of these games. And gold is what the host country is all about.

China won 32 gold medals in 2004, four fewer than the United States. To surpass the United States as the top gold-winning country, China's fearsome state-run sports schools have been targeting relatively obscure sports such as shooting, women's weightlifting, rowing, boxing and cycling.

Other nations are doing the same thing, but the Chinese seem better financed and organized.

Du and Yang each compete Aug. 9 and could take the first step for the Chinese.

"The first gold means glory," Yang said.

Du won the 10-meter air rifle four years ago in Athens, and she's under pressure to deliver again.

"Of course I am under some stress," Du said. "But I really enjoy it, because few athletes can have the chance to win the first gold medal."

Event outlooks

The five sports China has targeted represent almost one-quarter of the 302 gold-medal events. Many of the rest of the nation's haul will come in three sports that China always dominates - diving, badminton and table tennis.

The low-profile sports must make up for the absence of medals in two marquee events: swimming and track and field. China won only four gold medals in track and field and swimming in the last two Olympics combined. Defending Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang is China's favorite on the track, although his 110-meter world record was broken in June by Cuban Dayron Robles.

In swimming, the gold-medal favorite is probably Wu Peng in the 200-meter butterfly.

By contrast, the United States has won slightly more than half its overall medals in the last two games in swimming and track and field.

Foreigners often have a hard time learning Chinese names, but they might have to with the medal chase so close.

Defending Olympic diving champion Guo Jingjing is a favorite again in women's 3-meter springboard, and Chen Ruolin could win the women's 10-meter platform. China won six of eight golds in Athens and could do as well again.

China took three of five golds in badminton in Athens. Lin Dan is favored in men's singles, and Xie Xingfang in women's singles. They're also boyfriend and girlfriend and the top-ranked male and female players in the world.

In table tennis, China could sweep all four gold medals with men's stars Wang Hao and Ma Lin, and women Zhang Yining and Wang Nan. China owns the world rankings: the top five women are Chinese, and China holds five of the top six men's places.

Predictions

Predicting the final medal total - gold, silver and bronze - is a small industry, and the methodologies of picking the winners are as varied as the forecasts. At least two neutral forecasters are picking China to overtake the United States, and at least one is picking the Americans to hold on.

Of course, the official line from the United States says China is favored, and Chinese officials are picking the Americans.

"We're always up for a challenge, and I think we really have one here," said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee. "We have a very serious challenge, the most serious since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some people say we are playing possum, but we're not really."

China's Deputy Sports Minister Cui Dalin is picking the Americans and Russians ahead of the Chinese. But he'll probably be fired if this happens.

"We've got to take a pretty sober, objective view toward this," he said. "Overall, we're not a big sporting nation. ... The United States and Russia are still well above our level."

Simon Shibli, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University in England, is picking China to win the most gold. Shibli's approach ignores actual performances on the field. Instead, he predicts the medal count by looking at China's rate of progression since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

If China continues to improve as it has, the country will win 39 gold medals this August. In addition, it should win up to seven more because of the home field factor. That's 46.

"What you see is a trend line of continuing improvement. This is not achieved by fluke," Shibli said. "This is designed by the Chinese government on a 15-year planning horizon to show China's emergence as a sporting nation. But I can tell you for what China is investing, every gold medal will cost tens of millions of dollars."

This is still a relatively small expense because China - with a population of 1.3 billion - is spending about $40 billion on new venues and infrastructure for the games.

The United States has won the medal tally since 1996, but Shibli suggests it has less room for improvement than China.

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