China running away with gold medal race vs. the United States

Aug. 16, 2008, 11:31 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Where's the suspense?

So far, the ballyhooed race between China and the United States to scoop up the most Olympic gold in Beijing is heavily tilting the host nation's way.

That's no accident: China's been planning and investing in this sporting breakthrough for years.

This century, China has put men in space and is overtaking Germany as the world's third-largest economy. Unseating the United States from the top of the Olympic medal table seems next on Chinese leaders' list of "things we must do to show we are the new power on the block," although, as hosts, they've been gracious enough not to say so publicly and wise enough not to raise public expectations in China too high.

But after eight days of competition, with eight still to go, the figures brooked no argument. China had 27 golds; the United States 16. At the midway point four years ago, they had been neck-and-neck, with just one gold medal dividing them.

Without Michael Phelps' record-tying seven victories in Beijing, the gap this week might have been even larger. There are still gold medals aplenty to be won. But the United States will need a surging Phelps-like finish to come out on top.

No longer does China's gold medal haul rely solely on strengths like pingpong. In Beijing, it has notched up new successes in swimming, judo, archery - to name just a few. Talented Chinese youngsters who didn't reach the podium have gathered experience that could get them there next time, in London in 2012. In short, we had better get used to seeing even more of the revolution-red Chinese flag and hearing the anthem, "The March of the Volunteers."

"Unless something significantly changes, I would say that you're going to be looking at the new front-runner for a few years to come, and we'll have to all get smarter and better at how we compete in order to challenge them," said Steve Roush who, as chief of sport performance, is tracking the medal contest in Beijing for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Here are some of China's breakthroughs:

-Its three judo golds are more than China had ever won at a single games. It won just one in Athens in 2004.

-Zhang Juanjuan got China's first archery gold.

-Zhong Man got China's first fencing gold since 1984, and the first by a Chinese man.

-Zhang Lin became the first Chinese male swimmer to win a medal, a silver.

Project 119 is starting to bear fruit. That's the name Chinese sports officials gave to their plan, hatched after the 2000 Sydney games, to get more medals in water sports, including swimming and rowing, track and field and other events where China has traditionally been weak. Some of the extra money has gone to hiring foreign coaches. Even after their contracts end, the skills and training secrets they have passed onto Chinese athletes and coaches could continue to speed China's rise.

"They have a great talent pool and, like they have done in many sports, they have applied themselves and they will continue to progress, so it will be more difficult for other countries in the years to come," said Denis Cotterell, an Australian coach hired to help Chinese swimmers.

Chinese deputy sports minister Cui Dalin has played down the importance of Project 119.

"Although we have put in a lot of effort, development in any event is a process. In competitive sports, you cannot become a world champion overnight," he has said.

True. But China won a rowing silver medal on Saturday. It has five swimming medals - compared to just two in Athens. And 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang is aiming to defend his Olympic title next week.

China won 32 gold medals in Athens, four fewer than the U.S. China could overtake its 2004 high-water mark on Sunday - with a week of competition to go.

"For the most part, they are hitting the mark almost on everything that they had been tracking over the last two years," said Roush, of the USOC. "We on the other hand have had some ups and some downs."

In the overall medal count, including gold, silver and bronze, the United States leads 54 to 47. But in China's eyes, only winning really counts.

French coach Christian Bauer says that when China hired him to help its fencers, "they asked for an Olympic gold medal."

One of his first orders was more time off. The Chinese fencers had been training 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and even when injured, according to the Web site of the Communist Party's newspaper, People's Daily. "They work too much. My job was to put an end to that," it quoted Bauer as saying.

His recipe worked: Zhong dedicated his fencing gold to Bauer.

Having a head start from the first week does not mean that China will finish with more golds when the games close Aug. 24. The United States remains a power on the track. And it is tough to see anyone stopping Kobe Bryant and his fellow NBA stars on the U.S. basketball team.

China will be looking for more golds in diving, gymnastics and, of course, table tennis - which remains a national obsession.

"It truly is a marathon that we are running here not a sprint," Roush said. "But they have shown no signs of letting up."