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In medals race, more countries in running

The Olympic Games are entering an era of unprecedented equality among nations.

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But the USOC’s Mr. Roush cautions against reading too much into China’s performance in swimming and track and field at these Games: “There were unrealistic expectations that by throwing money, they would instantly be able to progress,” he says. “In the more developed sports, you don’t just shoot through the rankings.

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“Project 119’s effectiveness might not be seen in 2008, but it will be in 2012, ’16, and ’20,” he adds. “My sense is that China is in it for the long haul.”

“That is what keeps me up at night,” he says.

At the palatial Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, there is already a hint of what could come. The facility is an unambiguous statement of Project 119’s intent. “It is the single most costly canoe/kayaking venue anywhere in the world,” says Chris Hipgrave, a coach for the US team, a note of awe in his voice.

Since the advent of Project 119, the Chinese have gone from makeweights in world flat-water canoeing to medal contenders, hiring top coaches from abroad and building world-class training facilities like Shunyi nationwide.

“You go back a few years and they never had a presence in the sport,” says David Yarborough, executive director of USA Canoe/Kayak. “Now you do see them emerging as a federation to be reckoned with.”

The sport, he believes, is perfectly suited for the strengths of the Chinese sports system. “You learn the technique, the stroke rate – it’s all the measurable, trainable parts of Olympic sports that you can take from the lab to the water,” says Mr. Yarborough. “You can go out and preselect a body of athletes.”

Yet the white-water version of the sport also suggests how progressing in a sport is sometimes more than simply a matter of funding. Christian Bahmann won the white-water kayaking World Cup in 2005. When the German failed to make the Beijing Games, the Chinese came calling. He is now a coach here.

Styles of training
There have been successes in the program before and since. Last year, China won its first white-water kayaking medals at a World Cup event. But Mr. Bahmann’s admiration for the work ethic of Chinese kayakers is tempered by frustration.
“It’s not the quantity of the training, it’s the quality,” he says. “They think that if you train and train and train, it is enough.”

Unlike flat-water racing, “you are dancing with white-water,” says Ben Kvanli, a US white-water canoer. Adds Yarborough: “It puts a premium on all the intangibles – on all the things you can’t teach.”

Mr. Kvanli suggests the Chinese have done an admirable job of choosing whitwater athletes. “The athletes have been more fun-loving than I would have expected them to be,” he says. “It’s not the East German look you might have expected.”

For Bahmann, it is difficult to get the athletes to think outside the boat – simply sitting down and watching other racers, for example.

“I have no bad word about the athletes here, but it’s not easy for them to have their own opinion,” he says. “This is the thing in whitewater: You always have to make your own decisions.”

Still, Kvanli is impressed by the impact Project 119 has made. “Back at the world championships in 2002, they were terrible – their athletes were sitting there smoking cigarettes,” he says. “But they have done what I would have previously though to be impossible…. They are winning medals at the World Cup.”