17 days we'll never forget

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am

The first week belonged to Michael Phelps, who became the greatest gold-medal-winning Olympian of all time.

The second week belonged to Usain Bolt, who became the greatest sprinter yet, winning three gold medals and setting three world records.

But the Games belonged to China, who last night won the contest by which it set most store - the gold medal race. And they did it without the help of their two superstars, Liu Xiang and Yao Ming.

Liu surrendered to injury as he tried valiantly to start his 110 metres hurdle heat before 91,000 bewildered fans in the 'Bird's Nest' and hundreds of millions watching aghast on television. Yao fought a losing battle in the basketball as China's team sports again failed to live up to expectations.

But table tennis - where the hosts are unbeatable - again delivered last night as China moved within one gold of the 50 mark.

For the first time, the hosts have beaten the US in the gold rush. And not just beaten them, but overwhelmed them. The US have just 34 golds.

The growth in China's gold medal haul has been spectacular - from 15 in Los Angeles in 1984 to 28 in Sydney eight years ago, 32 in Athens in 2004 and now 49 in Beijing.

The US have still won more medals in all - 107 to China's 96 - and there are another 12 golds, silvers and bronzes up for grabs today. But as one US athlete said: 'It's gold or bust.'

Jamaican Bolt has had more impact on an athletics championship than any other athlete, including the legendary Carl Lewis, said International Association of Athletics Federations president Lamine Diack.

Phelps achieved a similar feat in the pool with his eight gold medals, seven of them in world record time. 'He may be human, but he's from a different planet, a different galaxy,' said Russia's Alexander Sukhorukov, one of the many rivals Phelps left in his wake.

China has no individual medal machines like Phelps, but a collective colossus in the shape of its table tennis players, divers, weightlifters and gymnasts. The hosts won the race for gold medal supremacy at these Games on the bars, rings, vault, pommel horse and mat.

By the end of the gymnastics events, China had taken nine of the 14 golds, a huge leap from the one it claimed in Athens, and the pendulum had swung.

World No2 Ma Lin completed a clean sweep for China of the four table tennis titles last night when he beat compatriot and world No1 Wang Hao. The divers just failed to make it eight from eight when Zhou Luxin fluffed his last dive in the 10-metre platform event.

Today, China will look to three boxers to land the final KO to the Americans and bring up the magical 50th gold.