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No way that China will settle for silver

Times Staff Writer

Last week, China took delivery of the gold medals it expects to award in 28 sports at the Beijing Olympics next month. If it has its way, many will remain in China.

Hungering for gold, particularly if you’re the host of the Aug. 8-24 Games, is hardly unusual. What distinguishes China is the intensity of its quest for gold, backed up by military rigor, buckets of money, one of the world’s last remaining Soviet-style sports programs and a desire to gain “face” with the international community.

The Middle Kingdom is on a tear. Its economy is roaring, migrants are restless and the country is awash in complex social problems. Winning gold is seen as a way to unite the Chinese people behind the government and Communist Party.

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Topping the U.S. in the gold-medal count also fuels its dream of one day eclipsing the world’s sole superpower in broader political, economic and diplomatic arenas. Officially, China is careful to downplay its gold-medal and long-term national ambitions.

“Beating the West at its own game would be particularly pleasing,” said Susan Brownell, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of “Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.” “Driving it is a feeling of being victimized by the West and a desire to regain what it sees as its rightful place on the world stage.”

Although China has maintained a Soviet-style sports program since the mid-1950s, diplomatic isolation kept it from winning its first gold medal (in shooting) until the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It bounced through much of the 1980s and 1990s with modest results before winning 28 golds in Sydney in 2000 and 32 in Athens in 2004.

Bookies in Australia and England give China a slight lead in topping the gold-medal count while PricewaterhouseCoopers -- the official Olympics auditor -- taps China to win the overall medal count with 88, one more than the United States.

“I think it’s going to be China’s year, that they’ll top the gold-medal table with 44 to 46 golds,” said Simon Shibli, head of the Sport Industry Research Center at England’s Sheffield Hallam University.

Not everyone agrees. Luciano Barra, former head of Italy’s Olympic Committee and an expert in medal counting, projects 49 gold medals for the U.S. and 38 for China. “Personally, I’m convinced the U.S. will be stronger than China,” he said. “The individual athletes are much more motivated.”

China got serious about its gold-medal ambitions in 2001 with the start of Project 119, a program named after the number of gold medals then offered in swimming, track and field and such water events as rowing. The number of medals in those sports has since increased to 122. Foreign technology and foreign coaches arrived, sports budgets skyrocketed and young talent was recruited and mentored. Seven years later, many of the young athletes are hitting their stride.

“With this government, if they say they want it done tomorrow, it’s done tomorrow,” said Alex Carre, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “They’ve outdone the East Germans, and they have the population base.”

Crystal-ball gazers expect each of the three sports powerhouses to do well next month in their traditional areas of strength -- table tennis, badminton and diving for China, swimming and track and field for the U.S. and boxing, wrestling and other “combat sports” for Russia -- with all three elbowing one another in gymnastics.

“It’s going to be a real battle,” said Steve Roush, chief of sports performance with the U.S. Olympic Committee. “There really is no such thing as low-hanging fruit anymore.”

Many of China’s gold-medal gains in recent years have come from cycling, shooting, rowing, kayaking and gymnastics, and in women’s categories, such as weightlifting. About 63% of China’s medals in Athens were won by women -- excluding mixed sports such as equestrian events -- compared with about 40% for the U.S. and Russia.

Although China should benefit from the home-field advantage -- Spain and Australia both punched above their weight as hosts -- the unreal expectations China places on its athletes put them under enormous pressure. “A winner is a king and a loser is a bandit,” says a Chinese proverb.

“In competitive sports, there’s been a rather cruel attitude that you’re No. 1 or you’re a loser,” said Chu Yuede, a professor of sports psychology at Beijing Sports University. “Sports officials are starting to understand this puts too much pressure on young athletes, but it’s difficult to change old attitudes. If a top pingpong player doesn’t deliver, 1.3 billion people will be disappointed.”

The sports systems that produce Chinese, American and Russian Olympians reflect their nations’ cultures, experts said. In the U.S., sports are fun, there’s a lot of participation and athletes have a lot of choice over the sport, coach and training method they pursue.

In China, with its 1.3 billion potential recruits, most people don’t participate in sports. There isn’t enough land or money. But its elite, state-run system is also more seamless.

Recruits are plucked from regular schools and from their families at 6 or 7 years old and placed in one of 3,000 special sports boarding schools after passing height, body mass and related physiology tests. Training is intense, and youngsters are expected to spend years doing what they’re told without complaining, in the interest of regional and national glory.

“The view is that the state paid for you, and you pay back in gold medals,” said Brownell, who trained in the heptathlon at a Chinese sports university in the 1980s. “It’s generally seen in a positive way: The country is your mother -- don’t let your mother down.”

Russia is a blend of the two. Its state system has become increasingly market-oriented since the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Its coaching is world-class, and the system has been energized by oil wealth and national ambition, although it’s struggling to recover after losing a lot of talent.

Some see a dark side to the Chinese system.

“Sure, other nations are keen to win gold medals,” said Wei Hanfeng, editor of the Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. “But other governments don’t control your private life, prevent you from dating or seeing your family, force you to live in a dorm or stop you being rewarded by sponsors.”

In recent years, the system has loosened up. Female athletes no longer have to look and act like men, the custom in the 1980s. And China is starting to let top athletes such as basketball star Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang accept some sports sponsorship, provided they give the government a sizable cut in return for their training.

For those who rise to the very top and deliver the gold, the rewards are substantial, such as large cash bonuses, and a slew of open doors in a society built on connections, including test-free entrance into elite universities.

But cultural reasons preclude many countries from adopting China’s approach.

“In the U.S., I don’t think the family would allow a 7-year-old to be shipped off,” Roush said. “Without that, this sort of approach is pretty much dead in the water.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com


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