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The Games Plan for China: Olympic Superpower by '08

August 10, 2004|John M. Glionna and Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — She's too young to compete this month at the Summer Games in Athens, but sturdy 8-year-old gymnast Situ Shiyi knows her nation's future Olympic success may well rest partly upon her tiny shoulders.

"Someday, I'd like to win a gold medal," the 65-pounder said last week after a floor mat routine at the Shichahai Sports School here. "It would make my mother proud."

Situ might not have to wait long to realize her dream. With little fanfare, China is emerging as an Olympic heavyweight that could soon challenge the United States and Russia for the biggest harvest of gold medals and national pride.

While acknowledging the gap that remains between some of its own top-level athletes and the world's best, China has set its sights on the 2008 Beijing Games to make a statement about its growing athletic excellence before millions of hometown fans.

"When an athlete wins a medal, they hoist their flag and sing the national anthem, which is a defining moment of national pride," said Ren Hai, a professor at Beijing Sports University. "And what better place for it to happen than before your own people?"

The makeup of its contingent headed for Athens shows how much Team China is banking on the future. With 407 athletes, it is the nation's largest Olympic roster ever and will compete in every sport except equestrian and baseball. It is also China's youngest team, as officials hold back some veteran gold-medal winners to make room for promising newcomers who might be stars in 2008.

China did not compete in the Olympics between 1952 and 1980. But since then, it has reinvented itself from an athletic paper tiger into a ferocious Olympic competitor, winning a national-best 28 gold medals at the Sydney Summer Games in 2000.

And signs suggest the Chinese are far from satisfied with that count.

"China knows it has a modern history of political humiliation. And when we finally opened ourselves to the outside world 100 years ago, we realized how left behind we were," said Zhao Yu, a sports historian whose book "Superpower Dream" chronicles China's Olympic efforts. "That's why gold medals weigh so much to Chinese people."

China's Olympic resurgence has other countries watching carefully -- including the United States, acknowledged Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

China has 17,000 in its elite athlete training system. The USOC has capacity for permanent training for 1,000, Scherr said. Outside the United States most Olympic programs are run or funded by the government.

As an individual incentive, China is considering increasing cash bonuses for its Olympic medal winners in Athens. In a country where residents on average earn about $1,000 a year, gold medalists already earn an $18,000 bonus.

The country's "gold-medal strategy," a battle plan approved by Beijing bureaucrats, focuses on developing women's sports, which officials here say are underfunded in many countries. Illustrating Mao's Tse-tung's saying that "women hold up half the sky," China's women won more than half the nation's medals in Sydney. And in this year's delegation, women outnumber men, 269 to 138.

"There's no question that they are making a significant effort, in fact leaving nothing to chance to win the medal count in 2008," Scherr said. "That is their stated goal as a national Olympic committee, and I think as a country for those Games. They certainly want to showcase the best qualities of their society and winning the medal count would help them do that -- as well as hosting excellent Games, which they're sparing no expense in doing."

Chinese officials intend to spend $30 billion readying Beijing for the 2008 Games, more than double the original cost projection.

At any rate, Scherr said, "we have our work cut out for us."

The Chinese, meanwhile, must convince skeptics that their Olympic sports program is no longer seeking success through doping.

During the 1990s, 32 Chinese swimmers were caught for drug offenses. In 1998, Australian customs inspectors found 13 vials of human growth hormone hidden in the luggage of one Chinese swimmer.

Just days before the start of the Sydney Games, China withdrew 27 athletes, including 14 track and field athletes, from its Olympic team, saying an anti-doping program had turned up "suspicious" results. The Chinese also pulled 13 officials, including controversial track coach Ma Junren, who claimed his runners won because they trained at altitude and ate a diet spiced with turtle blood and caterpillar fungus.

Chinese officials say they now have one of the world's strictest anti-doping policies, though steroids remain easy to obtain here.

Although China has traditionally been strong in such events as gymnastics, diving, table tennis and badminton, its Olympic officials also are concentrating on more glamorous sports such as basketball and track and field. Anchored by the towering NBA star Yao Ming, China may be well on its way to developing its own Olympic hoops Dream Team.

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