Host looks to dominate medals in '08

Updated: August 29, 2004, 11:29 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Even before the athletes claim all the gold at the Athens Games, the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics is in full swing.

They could be the most elaborate, best organized and most competitive games ever. They could also be the toughest yet for the United States.

The countdown to China begins Sunday, when Beijing's mayor takes possession of the Olympic flag during an eight-minute pageant at the Athens closing ceremony tying ancient Olympia to the Great Wall of China. Directing is Zhang Yimou, famous for his visually lush movies including "Raise the Red Lantern'' and the Oscar-nominated "Hero.''

China wants to show that it is going all out, and this is a country that knows how to go all out. After all, it built the Great Wall. It recently remodeled its largest cities, sacrificing entire neighborhoods for six-lane avenues and skyscrapers. In 1958, it implemented a misguided industrialization plan with such fervor that 40 million people starved to death.

Now, after a two-decade shift from closed socialist fiefdom toward global economic powerhouse, China plans to use the Olympics to demonstrate that the world's most populous nation is a surging force to be reckoned with -- and not only in sports.

"The games will be a kind of vehicle to showcase China opening up,'' said Wang Wei, secretary-general of the organizing committee. "China is the biggest developing country, the fastest-growing economy, and the Olympics enjoy the greatest popular support in China.''

Bob Condron, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, put it more simply: "This is the biggest coming-out party in history.''

Organizers are trying to calm concerns over their nation's humans rights record -- which has drawn protests in Athens -- and pledging not to stifle the 20,000 journalists expected to journey to Beijing.

To be a success, China believes, everything will have to be perfect.

In sharp contrast to Greece, which finished Olympic venues only days before the games began, China drew up plans to complete everything two years early. A massive propaganda machine is spreading awareness of sports and Olympic traditions among China's 1.3 billion people. The government is falling over itself to prepare infrastructure -- even changing laws to please IOC officials.

"If you need a million men to finish a stadium, you make a phone call and they're there overnight,'' said Bud Greenspan, the Olympic documentary filmmaker, who has worked closely with Chinese organizers.

The Chinese people are no less passionate about the games than their government. When the Olympic torch came through China in June on its way to Greece, Wang said, more than 1 million people turned out to see it pass.

"The celebration, the atmosphere was great,'' he said. "Just imagine when the Beijing opening ceremony takes place. It's going to be fantastic!''

The government recently revised its construction plans, delaying them to finish one year before the games. The reason? The International Olympic Committee, accustomed to pressuring host nations to speed up their efforts, suggested China slow down to avert a cash-flow problem.

To the dismay of other nations, the IOC can offer no such guidance to China's sports machine. It is roaring ahead with a single goal: to destroy all competition in 2008. The United States, the medals leader in Athens, is enemy No. 1.

"The Chinese buildup is the most massive in sports history,'' Condron said. "They may be so good that they could put the medals race out of sight.''

China participated in 14 of 28 sports in Sydney. In Athens, it is competing in 26. Its goal in 2008 is to enter athletes in every sport -- athletes who can win.

"They're going to swamp everybody,'' Greenspan said with a chuckle.

He Huixian, a vice chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said his nation has stepped up training for young people in sports like swimming and track and field -- competitions in which many medals are awarded but China has traditionally fielded weak teams.

Those efforts have already begun to pay off: Look no further than China's two gold medals in track and field Friday.

Other sports powers -- the United States, Russia, Germany and Australia -- also are targeting resources to boost athlete training, but China's push is more efficient because the government funds and exerts strong control over sports.

Children are tested at a young age to determine if their bodies will develop appropriately for a certain sport, then are placed into government-funded sports schools that have demanding training schedules but offer major perks for the children's families.

The head of the Russian Olympic delegation observed that the Chinese system is really the old Soviet system, and "they just took it from us.''

China's delegation to Athens even sacrificed some older athletes in favor of less qualified younger ones, so they could gain Olympic experience that will help them triumph in 2008.

"If the home team doesn't perform well, you don't have a good atmosphere in the games,'' Wang said.

Asked whether that meant China would steamroll over the competition, Wang gave a knowing smile and a humble response.

"No need to be frightened,'' he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press