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Is China Setting a New Gold Standard?

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, August 15, 2008

BEIJING At the End of Yesterday's Competition, China Had 22 Gold Medals, Which Is 12 More Than The United States. And Apart From Swimming, American Athletes Have Had Trouble Finding Their Way to the Top of the Medal Stand.

Watch out. Here comes China. If the United States doesn't wake up, by Aug. 24 it may be saying, "There goes China."

After just six days of Olympic competition, the host country was on the verge of stunning the world. At the 2004 Games, China had 32 gold medals, four fewer than the U.S. team. In these Games, China already had 22 gold medals -- just one shy of the next three countries combined, the United States (10), Germany (7) and South Korea (6) -- through the end of competition Thursday.

To be sure, track and field, in which the United States always has been strong and China barely existent, has just begun, so the numbers surely will change.

But every day, China asserts itself in a different sport, winning gold medals in eight areas, while the United States has been all but inept at everything except swimming.

Without the five gold medals won by Michael Phelps individually or as part of a relay team entering Friday, China would lead the United States in gold medals, 22-5.

The Chinese have asserted their dominance in the glamour sport of gymnastics, winning both the men's and women's team competitions as well as the all-around men's individual title. With 11 more gold medals up for grabs in artistic gymnastics, their haul isn't close to finished.

Also, China is a traditional power in table tennis, badminton, diving and shooting, where 17 more gold medals are available. So far, with the exception of a couple of excited Chinese shooters who couldn't get their heart rates down and were dubbed chokers, home-field advantage has consistently helped the hosts.

Just as daunting, China's boasts about "Project 119" already are coming true. No, that's not the Chinese equivalent of Area 51 in Roswell, N.M., where alien wrestlers might be recruited. Rather, it's the number of gold medals available in five sports in which China always has been terrible, and in which they won only one medal of any kind in 2000 -- swimming, track and field, rowing, sailing and canoe/kayak.

So how's it going? China already has five medals in swimming alone. Four of the "119" sports haven't even kicked into high gear yet.

Nobody should throw in any towels yet. A fast start by China was expected. But not this fast. China's clear dominance is not yet a certainty, but we may only be a few days away from seeing it.

China's strength is a state-run system that makes many in the West shudder. Talented children are identified at a young age, taken from their families and put in national training centers. Basketball star Yao Ming was the product of a state-arranged marriage between two basketball players. As a result, China is increasingly strong or at least competitive in almost every sport.

By the end of Thursday's competition, China had done best in weightlifting (six gold medals), shooting (four), diving (four) and gymnastics (three). By contrast, only in swimming did the United States have more than one gold.

However, the total analysis is not quite so simple. China had only one more medal overall than the United States (35-34). Why? Because led by Phelps, the United States had 20 medals in swimming.

If Katie Hoff, who was expected to win several medals in her five events -- including who knew how many golds -- had not fizzled, the total would be higher. Perhaps she peaked too soon at the U.S. trials in Omaha or attempted too many events in too short a time here; her coach has described her as exhausted and she will finish with one silver and two bronzes.

The United States' problem, however, has not been any one athlete or one specific sport. Instead, the most curious aspect of these Games for the United States has been its inability to show any semblance of versatility. Swimming and track are the core of the Olympics, offering 81 gold medals. The next six most-rewarded sports combined have only 90. So the United States is best at the right things.

But does the U.S. team have to be so inept at almost everything else? If you eliminated swimming, the United States would be tied with South Korea with 14 medals and be just two medals ahead of Italy and Russia.

Can't anybody in America shoot an arrow or lift a heavy weight anymore? So far, the United States doesn't have a single medal in sports as basic as weightlifting or archery. Once, heavyweight lifter Jim Bradford from Washington battled Russia's best for the title of world's strongest man.

If the United States wants better Olympic results, it would help if it made more of a fuss over its champions in "minor" sports such as gold medalists Kristin Armstrong (cycling), Mariel Zagunis (fencing) and Glenn Eller (shooting).

For decades, America faced Soviet and East German sports machines that mass-produced athletes from cradle to medal podium and sometimes cheated along the way.

Now China has its conveyor belt running, but with a twist -- a potential talent pool of 1.3 billion people.

Whether China will truly dominate this Olympics still is unknown. But the sea change in the medal count already is obvious. In 2004, the United States led Russia in total medals, 102-92, with China far behind with 63. Before this Olympics, pundits and bookmakers predicted that the United States and China would be nearly even in both golds and total medals.

If only you could get those odds now. But you can't. It hasn't even taken a week for the Olympic truth to come out: The Chinese have arrived.

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