China has accomplished its best-ever finish in the Olympics. China's rising athletic power comes as it expands its role in international affairs.

Across China, people are excited about their team's performance at the Athens Olympics. China held a steady second in the Athens gold medal tally, closely challenging traditional U.S. dominance in the Games.

The Chinese team is returning home covered with glory - having won 63 medals, 32 of them gold.

This is a far cry from 60 years ago, when China's delegation could barely afford the trip home from the Games.

China's Olympic performance has been improving for the past 20 years. Its growing ability in sports comes as it flexes its economic and political muscle internationally. China is becoming one of the world's biggest trading nations and in recent years, Chinese diplomacy has taken a more important role in international affairs.

Analysts say sports have become a tool for China's leadership to showcase the country to the world and to raise nationalism at home.

Professor Danny Paau, a historian at Hong Kong Baptist University, says China's sports rise does not come as a surprise.

"China has put a great deal emphasis on athletic accomplishments," he said. "In the beginning it was to tell the people inside China, that they're returning to what they had been in history. But at this stage, the political significance is not just limited to China."

China started competing in the Olympics in 1932. But after the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, it broke from the International Olympic Committee in anger over Taiwan's participation in the Games. It returned to the games in the Los Angeles in 1984 and placed fourth. In the Sydney games in 2000, China ranked third.

Fan Hong, a former member of the Chinese national swimming team, is now a sports historian at De Montfort University in Britain. She says Chinese rulers have long seen sports as a way to bring international attention to the country.

"The slogan is always "develop sports to recognize China," she said. "That is because when the modern sports came to China in the middle of the 19th century it came with the Western powers. China was afraid (it would be) humiliated and they tried to find a tool which can train strong bodies for the country."

The historian, Professor Paau, says sports achievements also are aimed at promoting nationalism, especially in Taiwan and in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

"We realize that now it has problems with let's say Taiwan and Hong Kong," he said. "Hong Kong has returned for seven years, but ?establishing some sort of identification among the Hong Kong people with the motherland would not be an easy thing. So I would think China would like to see the success of the Olympics would achieve that kind of goal."

However, in Hong Kong, ticket sales have been slow at an event next week featuring Chinese medalists. Hong Kong and Taiwan have separate delegations to the Olympics.

China's record finish in Athens is now putting pressure on its athletes to do even better in 2008, when Beijing hosts the Olympics.

The Chinese sport system is patterned after the former Soviet Union's - child athletes often undergo years of rigid training, separated from their families.

In recent years, there has been debate on whether to change to a more flexible system, reflecting China's more open and market-oriented economy.

But Ms. Fan says change is unlikely before 2008.

"If China wants to get more gold in the 2008 Olympics, it needs this system because this system has been very successful," she said. "This system will guarantee that the government will provide full financial support to the games."

Some rights groups have urged a boycott in Beijing to protest what they call China's poor human rights record. But this seems to have little effect on the rest of the country, where hopes are high that China will finally become the top team in 2008.