I had become numb to the Chinese gold-medal haul – another anonymous weightlifter, another picture of a victorious Chinese athlete holding an air pistol, whatever that is.
Not having seen virtually any of their gold-medal events, they all assumed a monotonous familiarity – China had more money to spend on sport than the rest of the world combined. It had built a better machine, and that machine was winning.
Then I saw Zhang Juanjuan.
She is undoubtedly a product of that same system, but in her individual archery gold medal was something I had not imagined to be a part of China’s gold-medal avalanche:
Zhang came in ranked No. 27 in the world, less a machine than a mercenary. She might not always be the most consistent of performers (gasp!), but in knockout competitions – like the Olympics – she is deadly.
Just ask the Koreans. They had not lost this event since 1984.
Joo Hyun-Jung entered the competition ranked No. 3 in the world. Zhang dispatched her tidily in the quarterfinal.
Yun Ok-Hee entered the competition ranked No. 2 in the world. She also held the record for firing the best recorded round of archery of any woman in the history of the sport. In May of this year, she fired 12 arrows at a target at an event in Turkey. Eleven hit the bulls-eye – 119 of 120 possible points. Zhang dispatched her, too, tying the Olympic record of 115 in the process.
Park Sung-Hyun entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world. She was the defending Olympic champion and had set the Olympic record of 115 earlier in the day.
On her second arrow, Zhang fired a 7, which, against the Koreans, is a bit like offering to play without your left arm. It is a mistake from which you rarely recover.
Yet from that point on, there seemed only one winner. The Chinese crowd, perhaps not on their best behavior, was a factor. But surely Park has faced worse than a few untimely whistles. Nor would it have mattered had not Zhang come on like the Beijing rain itself, steady, unrelenting: 9, 9, 9, 9, 10, 9, 10, 10…
With her nation watching, she was slowly turning the screw – there was no question of her age or of the country piling up medals in weak events. This was just her nerve against the best in the world. Six hours later, Chinese tennis player Li Na would repeat the feat, beating Venus Williams, two-time defending Wimbledon champion, 7-5, 7-5.
When Zhang's final arrow hit the target – a 9 – she had won by a single point.
Amid China’s medal flood, perhaps the most impressive of all might be one of the least noticed.