On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China is poised to dominate the world stage in athletics. As VOA's Jim Stevenson reports, the host nation has made unprecedented strides to catch up and perhaps surpass traditional Olympic powers.
Four years ago at the Athens Olympics, the United States earned the most medals with 102, including 36 gold, 39 silver, and 27 bronze. Russia was second with 92 medals, highlighted by 27 gold.
China's third place finish with 63 overall medals (32 gold, 17 silver, 14 bronze) was impressive, considering the communist nation had entered the Olympic Movement just 20 years earlier at the Los Angeles Summer Games.
U.S. Olympic Committee Chief of Sport Performance Steve Roush expects the three countries to again rise to the top in Beijing, this time with China as the pace-setter.
"We really look at this as a three country race with China leading the way between Russia, and the United States and China," Roush said. "So it is going to be a matter of what happens every day of the games. And you are going to find medals coming that are surprises. And you are going to have some disappointments."
The United States will have 596 athletes trying to maintain a competitive edge. But even if the team manages to win the most medals again this year, USOC Chief Executive Officer Jim Scherr says China's approach to the Olympics will make it a perennial favorite far into the future.
"We certainly believe this is a system that will be very long-lived. This is not a one-time shot opportunity for the Beijing Games," said Scherr. "The sports infrastructure, the sports facilities, the coaches that are being developed here, and the young people that will be inspired by these games, we think that this will be a formidable system that we will have to contend with for a very, very long time."
During the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the Chinese team won only one gold medal from the 119 available in what it considers to be basic events: swimming, track and field, and water events such as canoe and sailing. China's State General Sports Bureau then instituted its so-called "Project 119" with the aim of significantly increasing top finishes in those events.
With the advantage of competing at home among thousands of cheering fans, China has a realistic opportunity to fulfill its ambitious goal.