In medals race, more countries in running
The Olympic Games are entering an era of unprecedented equality among nations.
Seventeen days from tonight’s opening ceremonies, America’s post-Soviet reign atop the Olympic gold-medal table is expected to end – and that could be just the beginning.Skip to next paragraph
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Competition is changing more thoroughly than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China is at the head of a number of countries, from Britain to Australia, significantly ramping up spending.
This Olympics will mark only the start of the trend. China’s massive effort to win these Games is just now getting up to speed. It is tipped to win the gold-medal table here. By 2012, it could dominate – following a longstanding trend of great powers vying for Olympic clout that mirrors their diplomatic weight.
Add to this the rise of second-tier nations like Britain, and America will increasingly be squeezed from both ends.
It suggests an era of unprecedented equality among Olympic nations. The days of one nation winning 100 medals – as the US did four years ago in Athens – “might be a part of the past,” says Steven Roush, chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
The picture he paints is something like cold-war-lite: Three nations competing at the top of the medal table, but the distance between them and the nations after them increasingly diminished. Russia and the US will repeat their cold-war roles, with China standing in for East Germany and perhaps outstripping them both.
The Chinese assault on the medal table is overwhelming. Home-field advantage generally helps the host nation, and in recent Olympics, China has already been improving its performance. It is winning medals in sports at the margins of the Olympics, and also among women.
In Athens, where China finished second, women won more than half the nation’s gold medals. American women won one-third of the US total.
Olympic historian David Wallechinsky calls events like shooting and women’s weight-lifting “soft targets,” not to demean them but because the amount of talent competing in these sports is comparatively less than in sports like track and field and swimming. That makes it easier for new athletes to break through and medal.
Yet this means that the Olympics’ two great new sporting rivals might hardly see anything of each other in the fight for medals – the notable exceptions being gymnastics and perhaps women’s volleyball or soccer.
In America’s best events, swimming and track and field, it is possible that China might not win a single gold.
What is perhaps most worrying for American Olympic officials is that this will almost certainly not be the case from 2012 onward.
Eight years ago, China began Project 119, a $744 million bid to win in Beijing. The program is founded on the idea China can not fully overtake the US and Russia until it becomes better at track and field, swimming, and water sports such as rowing and canoeing/kayaking.
When Project 119 began, those sports accounted for 119 of 300
gold medals. Now they account for 122.
One year ago, however, the vice president of the Chinese Olympic Committee had to admit that Project 119 was not progressing as planned. “Every way you look at it, we are far behind,” said Cui Dalin. Hurdler Liu Xiang and swimmer Wu Peng are notable exceptions.