Reality or Strategy? China Plays Down Hopes of Beating the U.S. in Gold-Medal Count

After topping the gold-medal count on home turf in Beijing four years ago, China is loudly lowering expectations of another triumphant performance in London

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ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP / Getty Images

China's Liu Xiang competes in the men's 110-m hurdles at the Diamond League athletics meet at Crystal Palace in London on July 13, 2012

Was it a reality check or an ingenious tactic borrowed from China’s ancient book of strategy The Art of War? After topping the gold-medal count on the home turf of Beijing four years ago, China is loudly lowering expectations of another triumphant performance in London. China won 51 gold medals in 2008, outperforming the U.S., which captured 36. But at a press conference in London, a Chinese official noted that former host nations historically have won nearly a third fewer medals in the Olympics following their home-turf performance. “Without home advantage, we face huge difficulties in meeting our gold-medal performance in Beijing,” said Chinese Olympic delegation deputy Xiao Tian.

China has dispatched a downsized team of 396 athletes to London, compared with 639 athletes four years ago. (The Americans have sent 530 athletes this time around.) Still, there are 39 Chinese gold medalists among the London delegation, and China is competing in every sport except for handball, soccer and the equestrian events.

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Scaling back expectations isn’t a new Chinese ploy. Four years ago, as Beijing residents were confidently predicting that China would upset the U.S. at the top of the gold-medal charts, the country’s vice sports minister opined that it would be “impossible” for China to surpass America. The result, of course, was China winning by 15 gold medals.

Relying on a Soviet-style system that funnels kids into government-run athletic academies whether they have an innate interest in sports or not, China has achieved near domination in several disciplines. The diving team, for instance, will likely claim every one of the eight gold medals on offer. The table-tennis squad is looking for similar supremacy. Commanding performances are also expected in shooting, women’s weight lifting and badminton.

But there are surprising weaknesses in the Chinese armor. Their men’s gymnastics squad, once invincible, could be eclipsed in the team event by the Japanese and Americans, especially with news that pommel-horse specialist Teng Haibin has pulled out of the Games because of a muscle tear in his arm suffered during pre-Olympic training. The women’s squad, meanwhile, displayed its frailty last year, placing third in the world championships, behind the U.S. and Russia.

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In Beijing, 38 of China’s 51 gold medals came from just a handful of sports: diving, gymnastics, shooting, table tennis, weight lifting and badminton. All these sports offer multiple medals, making them ideal picks for Chinese sports officials trying to maximize their gold harvest. In addition, Chinese bureaucrats have poured money into women’s sports because they are relatively underfunded in other countries. In London, the Chinese delegation has 225 women and 171 men.

Not content to rest on its laurels, China has developed top-class athletes in other sports that enjoy little popularity back home. In London, Chinese athletes could reap gold in disciplines ranging from cycling, boxing and judo to trampoline, fencing and rowing. Most of the Chinese athletes competing in these events had never heard of their respective sports until state coaches came calling when they were kids.

The one area in which China still has a hard time gaining ground is in what Chinese sports officials like to call “big ball” sports, like soccer and basketball. (Women’s volleyball, however, is a point of strength for the Chinese.) In London, Xiao lamented the perennial underperformance of the Chinese men’s basketball team. But that didn’t stop the delegation from picking as the country’s flag bearer Yi Jianlian, who had a relatively undistinguished career in the NBA before returning home last year. “The flag bearer should represent the image of China well,” said Xiao. “He or she needs to have an impressive record in sports, be tall, handsome and influential.”

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Height is an obsession of the Chinese state. Since 1984, every single opening-ceremony Chinese flag bearer has been a male basketball player, as if the country needs a physical reminder that it stands tall in the world. Stature consciousness isn’t just in sports. The premier school for training Chinese diplomats has a height requirement for incoming students. When foreign VIPs visit Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, the entrance is invariably flanked by men and women a good foot taller than the average Chinese.

Some Chinese women have grumbled that since their gender delivers more gold medals to China, it is unfair that men are charged with bearing the flag. But men’s sports are another fixation of Chinese sports czars, who are desperate for victories in the Olympics’ highest-profile sports: swimming and athletics. Hopes are riding on two pairs of shoulders in London: those of Sun Yang, the world-record holder in the 1,500-m freestyle, and Liu Xiang, the world-record-tying 110-m hurdler whose failure to race in Beijing four years ago broke Chinese hearts after his golden performance in Athens. If either Sun or Liu wins, he will score his homeland’s first gold medal for men in these two popular sports at these games. Some triumphs, it turns out, mean more than others, even in a country that relies on a largely anonymous army of shooters, weight lifters and table-tennis paddlers to send it to the top of the gold-medal charts.

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