Project 119 is out; target 122 is in

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am

The architects of 'Project 119', China's plan to dominate the Olympic medals table, were forced to recalibrate. After the International Olympic Committee added 10-kilometre marathon swimming and women's steeplechase to the Beijing roster, suddenly the medal tally in five 'untraditional' sports targeted for improvement had grown to 122.

The strategy looks at medal-rich sports where China has struggled: athletics (47 golds), swimming (34), rowing (14), canoe/kayak (16) and sailing (11), and then ploughs talent and resources into them.

The most successful example so far is the rowers, who left the sport's established stars open-mouthed when they won three golds at the 2006 world championships in England, and could win more on their home water.

Women 'hold up half the sky in China', according to Chairman Mao's famous call for sexual equality, but in fact women have done more than their fair share of the heavy lifting in the past decade.

Of the medals won in Athens, 63 per cent were claimed by women. That compares with 40 per cent for each of the US and Russia.

China's sports bosses might insist Project 119 is a scientific approach to medal winning, but the formula is relatively simple. From the vast talent pool, hundreds of thousands of youngsters are examined for their potential sporting prowess, such as their height, body mass and other physiological attributes.

Often, a promising athlete is swapped from one discipline to another after close examination by sports scientists and coaches who better determine his or her Olympic destiny.

Liu Xiang, for example, started in the high jump before coach Sun Haiping noticed his speed, while Gao Yulan, who is favoured in the women's rowing pairs, was a javelin thrower until the age of 17.

Millions of yuan are then invested in the athletes by hiring foreign coaches, buying state-of-the-art training technology and placing the athletes in ultra-intensive training camps. The pressure to get it right after so much effort is beyond most people's comprehension.

State bean-counters have been doing a different sort of number-crunching, and estimate each gold will cost the nation about 48 million yuan (HK$54.9 million).

But to the government and the Chinese people, if the medals are delivered on the Beijing stage then every yuan spent on national prestige with the world watching will have been well worth it.