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BEIJING 2008

China now a major rival in team sports

August 11, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING — Welcome to the games within the Games, a miniseries between the two nations that are expected to top the medal standings when all is said, done, shot, volleyed, run and swum on Aug. 24.

A quirk in the Olympic schedule matched U.S. teams against their Chinese counterparts four times Sunday and today, twice in basketball and twice in water polo. The two nations also competed in team qualifying events in men's and women's gymnastics, though they weren't facing each other one on one.

The U.S. easily won in men's water polo and men's basketball Sunday, but the women's water polo and basketball matchups, to be played here tonight, figure to be more evenly matched. That should heighten the escalating rivalry between these two sports superpowers.

Through midday today here, the U.S. led the count with 11 medals to nine for China. China had the edge in gold medals, 6-3.

The U.S. women's water polo team has beaten China twice this year, once by five goals and once by three. China's women's basketball team defeated the U.S. to win the Good Luck China tournament here this year, but several U.S. players missed that trip, so it's impossible to read much into that result.

It's clear, though, that China is slowly building up its team sports, an area in which it has not excelled.

Until recently Chinese sports officials operated on the premise that it's easier to pad the Olympic medal count by funneling talented kids into sports with many individual events -- think rowing, diving, table tennis, shooting and weightlifting -- than to train a dozen water polo or basketball players to win a team medal that counts as only one in the standings.

That philosophy shifted after China was awarded these Games and became eager to put on a good show for the world.

To coach its women's basketball team, China imported Australia's Tom Maher, who coached the Australian women to medals in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.

South Koreans Kim Sang-ryul and Kim Chang-back were hired to coach the men's and women's field hockey teams, respectively, and both won medals at the Asian Games.

China hasn't gone outside the country for foreign water polo expertise, but its programs are progressing rapidly.

The Chinese men were even with the U.S. at 3-3 late in the second quarter Sunday and pressured the U.S. to ramp up its offense.

Five goals by former Long Beach Wilson standout Tony Azevedo allowed the U.S. to grab an 8-4 victory, but China's size and physical play made it close for a while.

"Three years ago we beat them, 25-0, at Los Alamitos," Azevedo said. "In three years they've gotten that much better. I really think that if they put a lot of resources in, they can be a top contender come two Olympics from now, probably."

Until then, the United States and China will duel most closely in the gym, and the tension between them is simmering.

Former U.S. gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi on Sunday reignited a controversy over China's possible inclusion of two underage female gymnasts. Karolyi, an NBC commentator here while his wife, Martha, oversees the U.S. women's team, said the Chinese were using "half-people" in flouting the sport's age rules.

"We are in the business of gymnastics. We know what a kid of 14 or 15 or 16 looks like," Karolyi told The Times' Diane Pucin. "What kind of slap in the face is this? They are 12, 14 years old, and they get lined up and the government backs them and the federation runs away. There is an age limit, and it can't be controlled."

Gymnasts must turn 16 during the year they compete in the Olympics or world championships, but the birth dates of Olympic all-around finalists Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan were listed as 1993 and 1994, respectively, on provincial registration lists. According to passport information Chinese authorities submitted to the International Olympic Committee, both are 16.

The world governing body for gymnastics, FIG, said it would accept the passports as accurate but promised to closely match passports against previous records in the future.

Translation: You didn't do anything wrong, but don't do it again.

The Chinese men's and women's gymnastics teams will probably win medals, but their injury-depleted U.S. counterparts will struggle to make the podium.

That should help China close the medal gap it faced in Athens, where the U.S. won the most medals overall, 103, to 92 for Russia and 63 for China. The gold-medal count was closer, 36 for the U.S. to 32 for China.

"You can see the trend. China's great in a lot of sports," said U.S. water polo goalkeeper Merrill Moses of Rancho Palos Verdes.

So is the U.S. So is their growing rivalry.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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