China: Can Olympic gold last?
Its dominance at the Beijing Games’ gold-medal table relied on a massive centralized sports system.
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Yet most of all, the 2008 Games have brought China to the forefront of the Olympics. Home nations almost always enjoy a home-field advantage. But even so, China’s lead in the gold-medal table could be historic by Sunday afternoon.
More than half of China’s 83 medals are gold – 55 percent. Among top medal contenders, this has happened only twice before. In 1952, 40 of America’s 76 medals were gold. In 1972, 50 of the Soviet Union’s 99 medals were gold.
The emphasis on gold has become a defining part of this Olympics. A former sports minister here said one gold was worth 1,000 silvers. The Chinese results suggest that their sports system is built with that in mind.
“The Chinese program really pares down athletes to whether or not they can win a gold medal,” says David Wallechinsky, author of “The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics.” “Once they’re zeroed in on a couple of people ... they put everything into these people.”
The same can be true in the US, of course, but the American system is generally seen as being more equitable, allowing athletes to distinguish themselves.
The Chinese development scheme “is a different kind of program that we’re not used to,” says Mr. Wallechinsky.
More US vs. China?
What worries members of the US Olympic Committee (USOC) is that they feel China has room to improve. Somewhat amazingly, only one of China’s 45 gold medals has come from swimming or track and field – the two biggest sports and the core of America’s Olympic program.
It is the main reason that Chinese success did not hurt the performance of the US, which has matched its results from Athens: 36 golds and 102 total medals.
Indeed, China’s success hurt no one nation in particular, says Wallechinsky. It consolidated its control of sports where it already did well, such as diving, weightlifting, badminton, and gymnastics. “The other ones came from just picking off medals here and there,” he adds.
But USOC officials expect that to change. “When they start taking some of our swimming medals away from us, it’s going to be difficult to compete,” said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance, in a May interview.
To do that, however, China will need to keep spending. Swimming and track and field are the most competitive sports, and it will take great commitment to break through. Yet many academics in China are pushing for the country to rethink this approach, says Professor Brownell. Focusing most of the money on a few elite athletes might win gold, but it does little to establish a sports culture here, she says.
Yet Mr. Roush of the USOC sees China developing a pipeline of young athletes for 2012 and 2016: “My sense is that China is in it for the long haul.”