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China is gaining, but Team USA is still No. 1

Image: World Record holder Liu Xiang
Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, center, is the favorite to win the 110 hurdles at the Beijing Games. Greg Baker / AP file

The subject was the Chinese Olympic team, and Peter Ueberroth was sounding like Lou Holtz talking up his next opponent.

The Chinese, he wanted the world’s media to know, are the biggest, strongest, fastest, meanest, toughest, smartest, best-looking and most well-read people on the planet. They chew nails and spit thumbtacks. They can outrun light, bench press the moon and quote Shakespeare in Urdu. Gosh, but the United States has to be happy just to be on the same field with these paragons of puissance.

I exaggerate a little. What he actually said of the host team was: “I expect them to be the dominant team in the Olympic Games for many years to come. We’re going to do our best. We’re not used to being an underdog in the Olympic Games, but we’ll get used to that and do our best.”

Either way you put it, the message is clear: Let the gamesmanship begin.

So, before you start thinking, “Poor U.S.,” keep in mind that Ueberroth’s words were being eagerly recorded by the Chinese media, who rushed to tell the 1.3 billion fans of the home team what the U.S. Olympic Committee chairman was saying about their heroes. And one thing Ueberroth wasn’t going to say was so much as one syllable that could be distorted into bulletin-board material in Chinese locker rooms.

Just don’t think that Ueberroth and Jim Scherr, the USOC CEO, are conceding this party and American dominance to their hosts. There’s a lot of things people have been calling Americans over the past few years, but “quitter” is not one of them. The United States leads the all-time Olympic medal count by a bundle, and it’s averaged about 100 total medals per Games for the past five non-boycotted Olympics. They’re still the team to beat.

A lot of analysts are predicting that this is the year China will pass the United States as the greatest Olympic power. Ueberroth and Scherr referred to that a couple of times in their news conference on Wednesday, just in case anybody missed it.

Behind the scenes, you can bet they’re using it as bulletin-board material to amp up a team that hasn’t had a rival worth gnawing a fingernail over since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Team China has advanced light years in the 24 years since it came out from behind the Bamboo Curtain to join the Olympic movement. It is only a matter of time before they become the best in the world. But they still have to beat the United States to get there.

China has put itself in position to threaten America’s dominance through a state-run athletic program like the ones the Soviet Union and East Germany put together. They identify talented athletes when they’re barely out of diapers, determine which sport they’re likely to be best at, and train the best of them in state-of-the-art, government-funded academies. Their total population of 1.3 billion is about four times that of the United States. With 24 years to build a team, you’d be surprised if they weren’t really, really good.

What’s more surprising than China’s emergence in a single generation is how the United States has stayed at or near the top for so long, and may stay there for four years longer. The USOC doesn’t get barrels of money from the government and doesn’t have a state-sponsored program for identifying athletes when they’re young. It has to deal with a national sports culture that celebrates football, basketball and baseball and little else and with college sports programs that are eliminating some of the nation’s best Olympic sports, including track and field, wrestling and men’s gymnastics.

It gets top prospects into its Olympic training centers when they’re almost adults, and the kids who train in those programs often have to get jobs to help defray their expenses.

This is a huge handicap. Even Australia, which has an Olympic team that is disproportionately strong considering the modest size of the country, has feeder programs for promising young athletes. The United States works as much by luck as anything else.

And yet America continues to churn out champion swimmers who start in local clubs on their parents’ dime, great sprinters and hurdlers, champion volleyball players, gold-medalist martial arts athletes and wrestlers, and even water-polo teams.

Team USA was the top team in 1896 when the Modern Games resurrected ancient Greece’s athletic tradition. In 2008, 112 years later, they’re still on top. The Soviets surpassed them for a while, thanks to a state-supported and drug-fueled sports machine. But the U.S. is back on top — and trying to stay there.

Scherr and Ueberroth are right in saying that China is poised to take over. They just don’t want it be this year.