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In Run-Up To Beijing Games, a Gold Rush

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The Washington Post's Ariana Eunjung Cha takes a look at the childhood training that has made China a very competitive country in the Olympics in just the last few decades. Video by Video and Audio by Ariana Eunjung Cha/The Washington Post, Edited by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com

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By Amy Shipley and Maureen Fan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 3, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 2 -- Though political protests, air-quality concerns and freedom-of-press issues have dominated the buildup to the Summer Olympics, a far different story line figures to emerge once the athletic competition begins this week.

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China is expected to unveil a powerful sports machine stocked with talented but barely known athletes from a massive state-sponsored training program that could challenge the United States' reign as the top nation at the Summer Olympics.

Using tactics similar to those employed by the Soviet Union and East Germany when they built Olympic powers decades ago, the Chinese will deploy the largest team at the Games in an attempt to win the most gold medals. Such an achievement would stir intense national pride in China, a country that views itself as having suffered decades of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.

"The U.S. has been in first place for many years," said Zhang Lei, 24, a baker from Emei in Sichuan Province. "If China can beat the U.S., it will mean that although we are not number one in military power, in sports we are. Our athletes can defeat the Americans in spirit."

Since China first bid for the Olympics 15 years ago, Chinese officials have selected children as young as 5 or 6 for training in Olympic disciplines. The government also launched an expensive training plan known as Project 119, which targeted gold medals in track and field, swimming and other water-based sports in which the Chinese lagged behind Western nations; it also put increased resources into obscure sports neglected by many countries, such as women's weightlifting and women's judo.

The result: China will field 639 Olympians at the Games that officially open Friday and run through Aug. 24, 43 more than the United States.

Chinese authorities have made it clear to the country's Olympians that expectations for success are high. "The Games are going to be highly competitive because almost all of the world's elite athletes will be here in Beijing," Liu Peng, director of the State General Administration for Sports, told Chinese reporters last week at the unveiling of the country's Olympic team. "I hope my athletes perform at their best and do not let the Chinese people down."

"They are playing the same game that the Soviets and [East Germany] did, going for sports with high medal counts that the United States is not all that good in," said Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian and author. "I don't think there are going to be a lot of head-to-head matchups [between top Chinese and U.S. athletes]. They're going to kill us in table tennis and we'll probably kill them in swimming."

Said Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance, "What [China is] building is this infrastructure that will have a long-lasting impact on their sports programs."

Experts say China's military-like sports schools, millions in government funding and large population of prospective athletes already have begun to alter the international sports landscape.

China won 16 gold medals -- fourth-best overall -- during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Four years later in Sydney, Chinese athletes won 28, third behind the United States and Russia; and in Athens in 2004, they claimed 32 golds, second only to the United States, which won 36.

The quest for gold became a question of international prestige long before China beat out Toronto for the right to put on these Games seven years ago. For 26 years, China did not participate in the Olympics to protest the inclusion of Taiwan, but it took part in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, sending a delegation of more than 200 athletes. A diver on that squad, Tong Hui, said losing was considered unacceptable even then; he said he left the Games in shame because he finished fourth in his event.


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