Yao Ming is China’s best-known and richest athlete, a towering icon of the Beijing Olympics and a symbol of the nation’s rapid rise in the last three decades.
But when it comes to the Chinese Olympic plans, Du Li and Yang Lian matter as much or more than the Houston Rockets center.
Du, competing in the 10-meter air rifle, and Yang, in 48-kilogram (106-pound) women’s weightlifting, each have a chance to capture their nation’s first gold medal of these games. And gold is what the host country is all about.
China won 32 gold medals in 2004, four fewer than the United States. To surpass the United States as the top gold-winning country, China’s fearsome state-run sports schools have been targeting relatively obscure sports such as shooting, women’s weightlifting, rowing, boxing and cycling.
Other nations are doing the same thing, but the Chinese seem better financed and organized.
Du and Yang each compete Aug. 9 and could take the first step for the Chinese.
“The first gold means glory,” Yang said.
Du won the 10-meter air rifle four years ago in Athens, and she’s under pressure to deliver again. “Of course I am under some stress,” Du said. “But I really enjoy it, because few athletes can have the chance to win the first gold medal.”
The five sports China has targeted represent almost one-quarter of the 302 gold-medal events. Many of the rest of the nation’s haul will come in three sports that China always dominates — diving, badminton and table tennis. Gymnastics also is expected to produce.
The low-profile sports must make up for the absence of medals in two marquee events: swimming and track and field. China won only four gold medals in track and field and swimming in the last two Olympics combined. Defending Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang is China’s favorite on the track, although his 110-meter world record was broken in June by Cuban Dayron Robles.
In swimming, the gold-medal favorite is probably Wu Peng in the 200-meter butterfly.
By contrast, the United States has won slightly more than half its overall medals in the last two games in swimming and track and field.
Foreigners often have a hard time learning Chinese names, but they might have to with the medal chase so close.
Defending Olympic diving champion Guo Jingjing is a favorite again in women’s 3-meter springboard, and Chen Ruolin could win the women’s 10-meter platform. China won six of eight golds in Athens and could do as well again.
China took three of five golds in badminton in Athens. Lin Dan is favored in men’s singles, and Xie Xingfang in women’s singles. They’re also boyfriend and girlfriend and the top-ranked male and female players in the world.
In table tennis, China could sweep all four gold medals with men’s stars Wang Hao and Ma Lin, and women Zhang Yining and Wang Nan. China owns the world rankings: the top five women are Chinese, and China holds five of the top six men’s places.
A powerful array of about 600 athletes — only the American delegation will be larger — will be boosted by the all important home-field advantage. Add to this dozens of foreign coaches — Lithuanians, Serbs, Japanese, Spaniards, Americans and Russians to name just a few — directing everything from water polo to baseball, basketball to rowing, and synchronized swimming to soccer.
Foreign coaches have been mostly successful, although German Josef Capousek was dismissed a few weeks ago as China’s canoeing coach. The Czech-born Capousek coached Germany to 17 Olympic gold medals, and the state-run Xinhua news agency called his departure “friendly.”
However, Capousek told German reporters he’d been dismissed for “political reasons.”
Capousek said he was ousted for making changes in training and team rules. He was replaced Sun Erjie, a military man and leader of the People’s Liberation Army canoeing team.
“China used to be opposed to outside ideas. We thought we were the center of the world,” said Zhong Bingshu, vice president of the Beijing Sport University. “So from the point of view of globalization and exchanging culture, foreign coaches have been a success. However, communication problems still occur in this process.”
Predicting the final medal total — gold, silver and bronze — is a small industry, and the methodologies of picking the winners are as varied as the forecasts. At least two neutral forecasters are picking China to overtake the United States, and at least one is picking the Americans to hold on.
Of course, the official line from the United States says China is favored, and Chinese officials are picking the Americans.
“We’re always up for a challenge, and I think we really have one here,” said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee. “We have a very serious challenge, the most serious since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some people say we are playing possum, but we’re not really.”
China’s Deputy Sports Minister Cui Dalin is picking the Americans and Russians ahead of the Chinese. But he’ll probably be fired if this happens.
“We’ve got to take a pretty sober, objective view toward this,” he said. “Overall, we’re not a big sporting nation. ... The United States and Russia are still well above our level.”
Simon Shibli, a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University in England, is picking China to win the most gold. Shibli’s approach ignores actual performances on the field. Instead, he predicts the medal count by looking at China’s rate of progression since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
If China continues to improve as it has, the country will win 39 gold medals this August. In addition, it should win up to seven more because of the home field factor. That’s 46.
“What you see is a trend line of continuing improvement. This is not achieved by fluke,” Shibli said. “This is designed by the Chinese government on a 15-year planning horizon to show China’s emergence as a sporting nation. But I can tell you for what China is investing, every gold medal will cost tens of millions of dollars.”
This is still a relatively small expense because China — with a population of 1.3 billion — is spending about $40 billion on new venues and infrastructure for the games.
The United States has won the medal tally since 1996, but Shibli suggests they have a less room for improvement than China.
China’s extravagant venues are meant to impress, to show a modern nation and a rising power of the 21st century. Some of the luster has been lost from the games by the promise of protests against China’s policies in Tibet and Darfur, air pollution and an ongoing battle between foreign TV broadcasters and the government over journalists’ freedom to report.
In the last few weeks China also was embarrassed when two athletes received life bans after failing doping tests: backstroke swimmer Ouyang Kunpeng and freestyle wrestler Luo Meng. Neither was expected to win a medal, though drug charges always cast a shadow on a team.
Yet all these problems might be neutralized if China can generate medals and good PR on the field.
“China’s government believes it can get prestige by performing on the field,” Shibli said. “Succeeding in an area in which other big nations do well should do a great deal for the Chinese psyche. They can say they are standing at the same table as the Americans and Russians and can play these people at their own games and be equally successful.”
Former Italian Olympic official Luciano Barra is picking the United States. Barra makes his predictions by looking at results from the most recent world championships or the equivalent event. In his final prediction before the Olympics, he says the United States will win 49 gold, 101 overall. He has China with 38 and 84 overall and Russia with 33 and 90 overall.
The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers also has picked China. Its model uses economic factors, population and income and projects China will win 88 overall, one more than the United States.
The USOC’s Roush predicts China and the U.S. could win more than 40 gold medals. In shooting, he suggested China might win 12 or 13 of the 15 gold medals available.
“China’s depth is incredible,” Roush said. “I think it’s going to take more than 40 for a country to be the gold medal winner in Beijing.
“When you start to think about China’s home-field bump, that’s when you start to lose sleep.”