Balance of power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2008, 12:00am

No matter how hard Beijing sports chiefs have tried to dampen the expectations of a medal rush, bookies and pundits the world over have tipped China to leapfrog the US into top spot.

Even one of the world's top accountancy firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has pitched into what has become a nail-biting, feverishly speculative debate about whether China has what it takes to surpass the world's sporting superpower.

Its recent survey suggests the home side should pip the mighty US team at the post, with China winning 88 medals to the Americans' 87.

'As the host nation in Beijing, and [with] an economy which has grown very strongly since 2004, our model projects a medal 'target' of 88 for China, which is much higher than its actual medal totals in Athens (63) or Sydney (59),' said John Hawksworth, the report's author.

Total medal hauls are a red herring, though, as the IOC's medal count prioritises gold tallies.

Several other surveys suggest the US will narrowly win and one says China will come third behind the US and Russia. To read too much into any of them would be unwise.

However, other nations have done well from the advantage of competing on home soil - and China has invested more money in its Olympic challenge than previous hosts to grab those extra golds.

With its Project 119, China had a scheme to identify gold medals up for grabs in hitherto no-go sports such as athletics, swimming, rowing, canoeing/kayaking and sailing. It then trained an army of future Olympians to go after them. But such long-term planning raised public expectations to greater heights.

Perhaps it was the worry of this numbers game failing to meet those elevated aspirations that has seen sporting officials repeatedly play down the idea of China supplanting the US over the past six months.

'Basically, we are not yet a strong nation in sport,' said a pessimistic deputy sports minister Cui Dalin in March. 'We must be practical and realistic. We've got only Liu Xiang for athletics and I don't see much hope in swimming.'

Maybe the government's sports chiefs are feigning modesty and perhaps they are worried about exacerbating the pressure on their already-burdened charges, but the spectre of the hosts staking claim to a gold rush has rattled their rivals.

US Olympic Committee executive director Jim Kerr said the Americans were fielding a strong team 'but we're under no illusions about the fact the Chinese have their strongest team ever in these Olympics'.

China's threat to American sporting dominance keeps US performance chief Steve Roush 'up at night'.

Olympic academics and historians, however, are more considered in their predictions.

'I don't like to make medal predictions until a few days before the opening ceremony because I like to factor in late results and injuries,' said David Wallechinsky, the main author of the quadrennial, statistics-packed Complete Book of the Olympics. Take US sprinter Tyson Gay's recent injury, which foiled his qualification bid in the 200m, as a prime example.

'The US and Chinese approaches to the Olympics could not be more different,' Wallechinsky said. 'The Chinese have a rigid, government-controlled sports system in which children are measured and tested and the most promising are assigned to sports schools and told which sports and events they will pursue. In the US, there is minimal government support, but children and athletes are free to choose their own sports.

'These differing systems lead to different results. The US is unusual among leading sports nations in that it gains a lopsided percentage of its medals in only two sports: swimming and athletics. The Chinese, on the other hand, have targeted 'soft' sports like canoeing,' Wallechinsky added.

'Both countries have equal chances to win,' said Chinese sports historian Xu Guoqi, the author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports 1895-2008.

'The possible and most interesting head-to-head competitions will be in women's volleyball and perhaps women's soccer as well. In both areas, China and the US teams have great chances to meet each other in the championship game,' he added.

Can buckets of money and an infinite talent pool - plucked and trained like robots - beat individual, passionate athletes bristling with patriotic determination?

Catch your breath, if you can, over the coming 21/2 weeks and all will be revealed.

As China and the US go head-to-head for gold, don't miss these must-see contests:

1 The mouth waters at the prospect of Liu Xiang and Terrence Trammell competing in the men's 110m hurdles for the medal that tips the scales

2 Women's beach volleyball defending Olympic champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh could be up against rising Chinese pairs Tian Jia and Wang Jie or Xue Chen and Zhang Xi

3 The US are women's soccer defending champs and China are ranked just 14th by Fifa but home crowds should spur the Steel Roses if they meet

4 The US women's gymnastics team won the world title in 2007, and China won it in 2006

5 At the individual level, Alicia Sacramone and Cheng Fei (pictured) are the best three-event gymnasts in the world