A tantalising ride to the top

China stunned the world with its performance at the last Olympics in Beijing. And now, with the stage set for the 2012 Games, the question on everyone’s lips is: will there be a Chinese encore in London? By A. Vinod.

Once dubbed the ‘Sick Man of Asia’, China’s surge to the top among the comity of nations in the last few decades is an amazing story in itself. Equally inspiring is the nation’s rise in the world of sport in general and the Olympic Games in particular.

In fact, in the 2008 Olympics at home — in Beijing — as the Chinese finally put an end to the American domination of the Games with a tally of 51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze medals, the world could only sit up and watch in awe. It was, indeed, a mammoth effort by the most populous country in the world in achieving its goal of emerging as a superpower in sport.

Undeniably, any student of Chinese sport would straightaway be taken in by the words of the famous American football coach, Vince Lombardi: “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.” And any analysis of China’s ride to the top would reveal the meticulous planning, determination, hard work and iron-clad dedication as the defining factors behind the nation’s success story and winning habit.

Predictably, China’s success story is based on a well-developed system that identifies and nurtures talent. The country boasts of over 300 full-time sports schools across its various regions wherein children are admitted at an early age and exposed to systematic, round-the-year training. Another major factor responsible for China’s growth is its focus on producing world beaters in a select few disciplines such as badminton, table tennis, diving, shooting, weightlifting and gymnastics.

Quite interestingly, this was not the case when mainland China entered the Olympic arena. Its attempts to win a medal in the 1932 (Los Angeles), 1936 (Berlin) and 1948 (London) Games ended on a disastrous note. The restructured People’s Republic of China experienced a similar result at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Thereafter, China broke away from the Olympic Movement, protesting the International Olympic Committee’s decision to recognise Taiwan (formerly Formosa), which competed as the Republic of China. The row was over the use of the name ‘China’. Besides, China itself was in the throes of a political upheaval.

China’s re-entry into the Olympic fold, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, was quite forceful. It ended its campaign with a total haul of 32 medals (15 gold, 8 silver and 9 bronze) and stood fourth, behind the United States, Romania and West Germany.

Gymnast Li Ning was the leading performer for China in Los Angeles, returning with an individual haul of six medals including three gold, while the women’s volleyball team achieved the unthinkable, defeating the United States in the final. Besides winning medals in gymnastics, the Chinese also impressed in shooting, with Xu Haifeng taking the 50m pistol title.

While the Chinese shot into the limelight, there were the sceptics who would remind the world that the absence of the powerful Eastern Bloc, including the Soviet Union — which stayed away from the Games in retaliation to the US-led boycott of the 1980 Mosow Olympics — had, after all, helped the Asian giant to excel in Los Angeles.

This line of thinking seemed to have some substance as China’s performance in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul was way below expectations, and with a tally of only 28 medals (5 gold, 11 silver and 12 bronze), the nation finished 11th overall. The only silver lining for China was the superb performance of its divers, Gao Min and Xu Yanmei, and the table tennis star, Chen Jing, who won the women’s singles title.

China, however, seemed to have learnt its lessons very well as it stormed back in Barcelona in the 1992 Olympics. The nation reclaimed its fourth spot in the medals tally with 16 gold, 22 silver and 16 bronze medals. The highlight of China’s performance in the Catalan city was the new dynamics provided by its women swimmers, Yang Wenyi (50m freestyle), Zhuang Yong (100m freestyle), Lin Li (200m individual medley), Qian Hong (100m butterfly) and Wang Xiaohong (200m butterfly). These swimmers were later nicknamed the ‘Five Golden Flowers’.

Gao Min finished with back-to-back Olympic golds in the 3m springboard diving to boost the Chinese medal haul.

The 1996 Atlanta Games saw China hold on to its fourth spot in the overall medals tally (16 gold, 22 silver and 12 bronze), with the exemplary diver, Fu Mingxia, the peerless paddlers Deng Yaping and Liu Guoliang and the sensational distance runner Wang Junxia leading the way.

The 2000 Olympics in Sydney witnessed another Chinese surge in terms of gold medal haul (the nation won 28 gold medals apart from 16 silver and 14 bronze) and the country finished third in overall standings. Fu Mingxia, coming out of retirement, proved her worth once again as did China’s new generation of table tennis players — Kong Linghui and Wang Nan. Weightlifters Zhan Xugang, Yang Xia, Chen Xiaomin, Lin Weining and Diu Meiyuan, badminton stars Ji Xinpeng and Gong Zhichao too pulled their weight.

It was a great performance by the Chinese, especially after the doping scandal involving their swimmers and the controversial Ma Junren’s army of athletes almost brought the nation to a grinding halt.

Doping controversies continued to haunt China in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But having launched its ‘Project 119’ (signifying the total number of gold medals available in events like athletics, swimming and other water sports that China was targeting), the Asian powerhouse found itself catapulted to the second spot in the overall medals tally in the Greek capital. Riding on superb performances by athletes Liu Xiang and Xing Huina, badminton star Zhang Ning, paddlers Zhang Yining and Wang Nan, shooters Wang Yifu, Zhu Qinan, Jia Zhanbo, lifters Chen Yanqing, Shi Zhiyong, Zhang Guozheng, Liu Chunhong and Tang Gonghong, China finished with 32 gold medals, just four short of the United States.

In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China stunned the world by climbing to the top of the medals table. China’s success was principally in the medal-heavy niche disciplines with its stars mining table tennis, badminton, diving, shooting, weightlifting and gymnastics for 38 of its total gold haul of 51. The nation made a clean sweep of the table tennis events, won seven out of the eight diving gold medals, eight of the 15 weightlifting titles, 11 of the 18 gymnastics titles and five of the 10 shooting categories.

The success at the Games apart, the manner in which the Olympics was conducted, the spectacular Opening and Closing ceremonies and state-of-the-art venues like the highly-admired Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube underscored China as an emerging superpower.

True, the performances of American superstar Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt would remain the high points of the Beijing Games from a historical point of view. But nevertheless, the gold medal-winning efforts of Zou Kai, Yang Wei, He Kexin, Chen Yibing, Li Xiaopeng, Xia Qin, Yang Yilin and Qin Kai (gymnastics), Guo Jingjing, Chen Ruolin, Wu Minxia and Wang Xin (diving), Ma Lin, Zhang Yining, Wang Nan and Wang Hao (table tennis), Chen Xiexia, Long Qingquan, Chen Yanqing, Zhan Xiangxing, Liao Hui and Lu Yong (weightlifting), Pang Wei, Guo Wenjun, Chen Ying and Du Li (shooting), Lin Dan and Zhang Ning (badminton) and Zou Shiming and Shang Xiaoping (boxing) would forever remain in the hearts of the Chinese.

With the stage set for the 2012 Olympics, the question on everyone’s lips is: will there be a Chinese encore in London?

Given the fact that China would be competing away from home and that it would be sending only 396 athletes to London, when compared to the 639-strong contingent it had in Beijing or the 407-member team it had in Athens, it would be difficult for the Asian powerhouse to dominate the 2012 Games. China, however, would be a force to reckon with in disciplines such as badminton, table tennis, shooting and diving and also swimming and athletics.

Among those with huge expectations on them are Sun Yang, who is tipped to become China’s first male Olympic swimming champion, and hurdler Liu Xiang.

Sun, who smashed Grant Hackett’s decade old 1500m world record last year, is ranked number one in the 400m besides his pet event.

Liu Xiang will be among the high-profile athletes in London. He had won the 110m hurdles in Athens, but sensationally pulled out of the event after the first heat in Beijing with an Achilles injury.

Liu had to pull out of the recent London Grand Prix owing a troubled back and his recovery will be keenly watched.

Tennis superstar Li Na, who became the first Chinese to win a Grand Slam title last year at the French Open, will also be in London.

On the downside though is the relative inexperience of the Chinese weightlifting squad with defending champion Lu Yong (men’s 65 kg) being the only major hope. The injury to its top gymnast Cheng Fei could also spoil the Chinese party in London, as the Americans, Romanians and Russians are likely to take the competition in the women’s section to the wire.

But then, China cannot be taken lightly, as its rivals would vouch. The Chinese have always shown indomitable spirit at the Games.