Without Phelps, it's going to take something huge from the US to close gap

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2008, 12:00am

Even if they belly flop in diving, capsize in the kayak and get KO-ed in boxing, China's athletes have overpowered the United States.

The questions now for the bruised and battered Americans are: how did China do it? Are they going to do it again? And, if so, what can be done to stop them?

The easy answer to the first question is the mysterious Project 119. China is 'soft-targeting medals', spending 'untold millions' in pursuit of golds, tapping up the 'best coaches in the world' and 'locking away its athletes' for years at a time so all they can think of is winning. How else could they win eight golds in weightlifting, five in shooting, and so forth and so forth?

Project 119 is the perfect excuse for the underperforming US. Truth is, blaming Project 119 for their failure is about as convincing as the official age of China's female gymnasts.

Project 119 should in fact be called Project 122 after IOC roster changes, referring as it does to the number of medals available in athletics (47), swimming (34), canoe/kayak (16), rowing (14) and sailing (11).

In Athens, China won four gold medals in these five sports - Liu Xiang (men's 110m hurdles), Xing Huina (women's 10,000m), Luo Xuejuan (women's 100m breaststroke), and Yang Wenjun/Meng Guanliang (men's C2 canoe/kayak).

In Beijing, Project 122 has thus far yielded only two golds - Liu Zige in the women's 200m butterfly, and the women's quadruple sculls. There's a chance of gold in women's hammer and a Yang/Meng repeat in the canoe and, you never know, Dayron Robles and the top five hurdlers might all fall over to allow Shi Dongpeng to end four long days of hurt.

In all likelihood, the number of golds in the 'soft-targeted' sports will actually fall. This soft-targeting has proved hard, and the gold rush has come in all the usual places.

The traditional powerbases have remained solid: diving is six-out-of-six and counting; in badminton China actually have dropped to three from five; and table tennis looks very much like the four-gold sweep. The 'new strengths' have again proven a rich seam: eight in weightlifting, five in shooting, three in judo. This isn't a shock, just an incremental improvement. In Athens there were five golds in weightlifting, four in shooting, two in judo. The sport responsible for much of the leap up the table has been the black sheep of China's sporting family, gymnastics.

It's crucial for two reasons - there's a lot of metal on offer (16 golds, including rhythmic and trampoline), and it's a place where the US, Russia (remember them?) and China compete head-to-head. So far, China have won 11 golds to America's one and Russia's zero - for China's that's a 10-gold improvement.

The powerbases, the new strengths, and gymnastics - these golds might have looked easy, but they weren't. For four years, small areas of improvement were identified, team selection was painstaking and training for the pressure of competing at home intense. It was methodical and considered.

The medal table might look pretty frightening for the US, but the truly scary part is what comes next. If Beijing 2008 was a sound beating, 2012 could be a thrashing, and 2016 a possible rout.

Project 119 or 122 was never about now. The seven years since it was first mooted were not enough to build a team of world-class runners, rowers and sailors. The gold haul in the five sports might have been meagre, but what the performances did was hint at what is to come.

The rowers were tipped to take a number of golds, but failed. Nevertheless, add a silver and a number of final berths and what you've got is a starting point. Athletics might look a bust, but dig below the surface and there is promise. Swimming was a big positive - and not just Liu Zige's surprise gold. The additional three silvers, two bronze and a number of final appearances have grabbed the US and the Aussies' attention.

So what, if anything, can the US do about it? There's no easy answer - no project.

They could shore up the powerbases - which for the US means regaining dominance on the track, beating the Aussie women in the pool, and rediscovering their spring in gymnastics. Next, better target borderline sports. The US got just one gold in rowing and fencing yielded one gold. Shooting produced two golds, two silvers, two bronzes - not good enough. Third, and most important, the US must broaden its horizons. Where's the winners in martial arts? And just one in cycling? Little Britain got eight, for goodness sake!

Come London, and without softball, baseball and eight from Michael Phelps to count on, it's going to take something huge from the US to close the gap on China. The clock is ticking.

Gold medals won by China in shooting: 5