The Beijing Olympics are four years away, but construction of the venues is so far ahead of schedule that the International Olympic Committee has asked Chinese organizers to slow down in order to better manage their cash flow.
The Chinese have been equally zealous about preparing their athletes for the 2008 Games, and the results are showing up in similar fashion -- well ahead of schedule -- here in Athens.
China has gotten off to a dazzling start at the 2004 Games, claiming four of the 13 gold medals awarded on the opening day, and is second only to the United States in the medal count with 22 overall.
China's fast start is hardly an accident.
Fireworks exploded over Beijing in July 2001 when the city was awarded the 2008 Games. Since then, China has dedicated itself to preparing for the glorious moment when it plays host to the world, eager to present itself as a high-tech, dynamic and inclusive nation with expertise in a vast array of sports.
The Chinese were measured in discussing their medal hopes heading to Athens, so much so that six days into the 17-day Games, China is more than halfway to its gold medal goal of 20, with 11 in hand. While winning medals in Athens is certainly important to the Chinese, winning gold in Beijing in 2008 is the ultimate goal. And it is driving everything about the Chinese performance here -- including the selection of the athletes, the compilation of the national teams and the hiring of the coaches.
With an eye toward success in Beijing, Chinese officials adopted two new policies for Athens.
First is a premium on youth. If two athletes vying for a spot on China's 2004 Olympic team were relatively close in ability, the younger one was chosen -- even if it meant passing over a defending Olympic champion. China's men's singles champion in table tennis was left at home so that a 21-year-old prospect could begin the seasoning process in Athens. Its 2004 Olympic diving team includes a 14-year-old prospect for the same reason.
"The Athens Olympic Games is a rare opportunity for even more young athletes in more sports to experience how intense the competition might be and accumulate experience for their participation in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games," said Li Furong, a Chinese Olympic Committee vice president. "Many excellent divers are not chosen to compete this time because of old age."
Secondly, Chinese officials have worked to broaden their sports prowess for the Beijing Games. The country has scant reason to worry about maintaining its hegemony in badminton, women's weightlifting and shooting. But China desperately wants to improve in basketball, softball, field hockey, women's handball, swimming and track and field. So it has sent its largest delegation of athletes ever to the 2004 Athens Games in hopes of honing their skills. China's 407 Olympians (138 men and 269 women) are competing in 26 of the 28 sports contested -- all but equestrian and baseball.
China is also looking beyond its borders for coaching expertise, sloughing off the last vestiges of its closed-market economy to import coaches from the West where needed.
In February, China hired Del Harris, 67, a former NBA coach of the year, as head coach of its national men's basketball team, which finished a disappointing 12th in the 2002 world championships. Harris promptly drew up a list of basketball terms he needed translated to Chinese and set to work fattening up his squad, which includes the towering center Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets. The team is young by design, with seven players under 25 -- including Yi Jianlian, a 7-foot 16-year-old who has already been touted as an NBA lottery pick.
China's women's softball team is also coached by an American.
Such initiatives are a far cry from the 1932 Olympics, when a lone Chinese athlete entered the competition without his government's knowledge. Embarrassed by the fact that the world's most populous nation was represented by only one athlete in the international competition, the Chinese government invested nearly 200,000 yuan (roughly $24,000 today) to prepare 69 athletes for the 1936 Games. When they returned from Berlin empty-handed, the delegation's official report read: "We were a far cry from many countries in the results and athletic abilities. We were ridiculed as having brought back nothing but a duck's egg."
For the Athens Games, the Chinese government will award 200,000 yuan, the same amount spent on the 1936 team, for each gold medal won. A silver medal is worth 150,000 yuan ($18,000); bronze, 100,000 ($12,000). As in other countries, corporate backers will sweeten the athletes' pot.
And the dividends of these efforts are starting to show.
On Monday, 20-year-old Xuejuan Luo became the first Chinese swimmer to claim Olympic gold in eight years when she won the women's 100-meter breaststroke in Olympic-record time.
Later that night, Lao Lishi and Li Ting proved they need no further seasoning with their gold medal performance in 10-meter synchronized platform diving. With their tiny frames, matching red suits and identical haircuts, the 17-year-olds looked like two halves of a Rorschach print. And they performed their five dives, each more difficult than the one preceding it, with a precision so breathtaking it seemed digitally generated. The clear blue water testified to their mastery, barely kicking up a splash as they knifed the water in tandem. A spirited band of Chinese tourists cheered their every attempt, holding up hand-lettered banners decorated with their names and the phrase, "You are a Winner!" in Chinese characters.
"We were not nervous at all," Lao said afterward, "because we had a lot of practice on our physical and mental state."