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Host looks to dominate medals in '08

8/29/2004

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.