China: Can Olympic gold last?

Its dominance at the Beijing Games’ gold-medal table relied on a massive centralized sports system.

Herbert Knosowski/AP
Champion: Chinese windsurfer Yin Jian celebrated her win Wednesday in Qingdao, about 450 miles southeast of Beijing. China has dominated the gold-medal table and neared the US in overall medals.
Pascal Lauener/Reuters
Winner: Chinese sailor Yin Jian kisses her gold medal.

The Beijing Games have established a new Olympic order. To win these games, China made a massive investment in its sports system. If it continues, the dominance could continue for years to come.

The host nation is set to win the gold-medal table. By the time the Games end Sunday, it may near the Soviet Union’s record of 55 golds in a nonboycotted Olympics, set in 1988.

Yet the triumph has come at great cost. China’s centralized sports system is expansive and expensive. With little of a grass-roots sports culture here, the government must maintain or even increase its funding to stay on top.

China must decide whether to pull back now that it’s won its hometown Games or use this success as a foundation for more. Its decision could shape the medal table for years to come.

“With the good feelings there is going to be a lot of public support for continuing the policy of winning gold medals,” says Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis who has also studied at Beijing Sport University. “[The decision] might have to go into the top leadership of China.”

The Beijing Games have brought new faces. Never before had Jamaica won more than two gold medals. With three days of sprints remaining, it has already won five. Britain is gearing up its Olympic machine for London 2012: Here it has won 17 gold medals, its most in 100 years.

Mongolia won its first gold medal, in judo; Togo and Afghanistan each won their first medal of any color, in kayaking and taekwondo, respectively. In all, 80 nations have so far won medals – tying the all-time Olympic record, set in Sydney in 2000.

Beijing 2008 has also seen disappointments. Russia was expected to challenge the US and China in the medal tally. It will probably finish strongly – but well behind both. After Thursday, it was still 12 golds and 42 total medals short of the US.

Gold wins more cachet

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.”

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