BEIJING - Seven years ago, when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, China set out to sow gold, following the old proverb that says, “To believe in one’s dreams is to spend all of one’s life asleep.”
When the Olympics conclude Sunday with the celebratory farewell of athletes inside Bird’s Nest Stadium, China’s Great Leap Forward will be complete. Counting preparation costs, it spent nearly $1 billion per gold medal, but to a nation seeking superpower status, every ounce of sweat was well spent.
China has a golden Games, but when the world leaves questions will linger
With one day of competition remaining, China was one short of the heady number of 50 gold medals, a feat accomplished only twice in non-boycotted, modern Olympics, by the Soviet Union in 1972 (50) and 1988 (55). China will win the gold count for the first time, supplanting the U.S., which will win the overall medal count.
The International Olympic Committee doesn’t recognize the medal scorecard by country, but countries do in this festival of nationalism.
For China, which shunned the Olympics from 1960 to 1984, the success of the Beijing Games represents a milestone that will reverberate through many levels of society.
Worries about pollution and political protests were dwarfed by images of giant basketball star Yao Ming. Complaints about China’s authoritarian government were muted by its graceful divers and nimble table tennis players. Wariness about the Communist Party’s human rights record was diffused by the attention lavished on the stunning Water Cube and Bird’s Nest venues.
“China has successfully used the Games to win glory and respect,” said Xu Guoqi, a Chinese-American professor and author. “For the last 100 years, China has tried to find a new national identity, and the Olympics is the high point of that search.”
Masses of courteous and industrious volunteers put a harmonious face on a nation seeking to emerge from behind its Great Wall of isolation. Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and NBC set memorable records.
China’s rise in sports mirrored the rapid growth of its economy and overshadowed another excellent performance by the U.S. Olympic team, which will win medals in at least 21 of 38 disciplines and, with a few notable disappointments and surprises, fulfill its expectations.
“We knew we’d be the underdog and China would have the home field advantage,” said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “The key with any host country is whether they maintain momentum. As long as they invest huge resources in sports, they’ll have a great pipeline of athletes.”
China continues to fall short in its two favorite sports - men’s basketball and men’s soccer. And its tiny female gymnasts, who beat the U.S. for the team gold, are now the subject of an investigation for possible doctoring of birth dates.
Hurdler Liu Xiang hobbled off the track with a foot injury.
“Heads will roll in soccer,” said Susan Brownell, an anthropologist who lives here and a former U.S. track and field athlete who also competed for Chinese teams. “Liu’s withdrawal will provoke discussion about whether he was pushed too hard or put under too much pressure.”
But the sport of diving illustrated the gap China is widening between itself and the U.S. Chinese divers won seven of eight diving medals in a sport the U.S. once dominated while the U.S. was left without a medal for the second consecutive Olympics.
While China set out through its state-run sports system to maximize medals even in obscure sports, the U.S. won golds in women’s basketball and women’s soccer, plus silvers in women’s volleyball, women’s water polo and softball. The men’s basketball and water polo teams are playing for gold medals Sunday.
“Team sports have been phenomenal,” Roush said. “We’ll have 12, 15, 18 members of teams wearing medals but the medal table only shows one.”
The U.S. made inroads in fencing, sailing, shooting and fencing, but it was disappointed in boxing, wrestling and track cycling.
China also excelled in weightlifting, gymnastics and badminton, and it gained in swimming, tennis, beach volleyball, archery, rowing.
“With both their resources and effort in every single sport, we’re going to have to redouble our effort,” USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth said.
Baltimore’s Phelps was the biggest individual winner of the Games, capturing eight gold medals - seven in world-record time - to break Mark Spitz’s record.
Jamaica outshone the U.S. in track and field, winning five of the six sprint gold medals. The 6-5 Bolt won three golds and set three world records while both U.S. 400-meter relay teams dropped the baton in qualifying heats.
China’s gymnasts won nine gold medals, but American Nastia Liukin won the coveted all-around gold, and the U.S. men grabbed a team bronze even without Paul Hamm.
South Florida athletes had mixed results. Anna Tunnicliffe won gold in sailing, but sprinter Sanya Richards settled for bronze in her specialty, the 400 meters. Dara Torres, the 41-year-old Supermom, won three silvers in swimming. In basketball, Sylvia Fowles made a big contribution to the gold-medal winning women, and Dwyane Wade did the same for the men, who seemed headed toward gold. Hurdler Bershawn Jackson won bronze with Northwest Express Track Club coach Jesse Holt watching from the stands. Beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor, wife of Marlins catcher Matt Treanor, won her second consecutive gold with partner Kerri Walsh without losing a match.
The Games promoted as High-Tech, Safe and Green were also mostly clean, if drug testing is an accurate measure. The IOC conducted more than 4,500 tests and only a handful came back positive.
China’s government didn’t escape criticism. It set up three protest zones in the guise of allowing free expression, then granted zero permits to applicants.
Security was omnipresent, with olive green-clad soldiers standing guard at street corners and venue entrances or marching in formation down sidewalks. Attempted protests in Tiananmen Square or at the Olympic Green - such as the unfurling of a “Free Tibet” banner - were quickly shut down and demonstrators were detained or deported.
“The 2008 Beijing Games have put an end once and for all to the notion that these Olympics are a ‘force for good,’ ” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, referring to IOC president Jacques Rogge’s stated motivation for awarding the Games to China. “The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses.”
But overall, China overcame the bad publicity of the Torch Relay and violent crackdown in Tibet and the sorrow of the earthquake in Sichuan that preceded the Games to stage the pageant it had so painstakingly prepared.
Its 3,000-school sports system faces reform as athletes seek more freedom and money and the people press for more investment in mass recreation and fitness, Xu said.
The Olympics also pushed open discussions on “Thought Liberation” in the Reform Era - some even televised, Brownell said.
“Invite guests for your wedding, and you put out your best dishes,” Brownell said. ’‘When the world is gone, a lot of questions and political infighting will remain.”