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It's a system that has caught the attention of the United States, accustomed to contending only with Russia for top medal honours. "I think that for a centralized nation like China, sports is one of the ways they can show the strength of their culture to the world," says Jim Page, who travelled to Beijing this summer in his role as managing director of games performance at the United States Olympic Committee.
"China is a very active sports society and an emerging society, not just in sports but in economics, and they perceive that it's their destiny to be one of the best, if not the best in the world.
"They're very competitive, they're very capitalistic and they're very driven to show the strength of their society, and sport is the way they're doing it right now."
There's some irony that one of the world's oldest and most sophisticated cultures has put so much emphasis on an event with which it has had such an uneven relationship. China didn't participate in the Olympics until 1932, when it sent a single sprinter to Los Angeles. After the People's Republic was founded, mainland China sent a team to the 1952 Summer Games, but sat out the Games thereafter as the IOC continued to recognize a team from Taiwan, before returning in 1984.
But there is an expectation here that the 2008 Games will prove that China has overcome its recent struggles and is on its way back to its status as one of the world's great nations.
"Chinese people have changed a lot, and we want to show the world our new image," says Jin Yuanpu, director of the Olympic Studies Centre. "We have strong personalities and good self-esteem and we want to participate in world affairs. The Olympics gives the West a chance to see the new China the way China really is. The world gives us 17 days, we give the world 5,000 years."
In that context, it's fitting that the clock counting down to the start of the opening ceremonies in four years' time stands at the top of the steps leading to the Museum of Chinese History, overlooking Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing.
A nation's future leading to its past.
China's medal count
Rank: Third in gold, third overall
Rank: Second in gold, third overall
BEIJING 2008 (projected)
Whenever an authoritarian state beings making big strides in Olympic sports, questions arise over whether a systemic doping program may be behind it. And China has had its share of doping scandals since returning to Olympic competition in 1984.
In their early 1990s, China's female distance runners came from nowhere to rewrite the record book while drinking turtle's blood and taking other traditional Chinese medicines. Their rivals accused them of taking steroids. A Chinese swimmer was stopped at Australian customs for having vials of human growth hormone in her luggage in 1998. Two weeks before the 2000 Sydney Games, China kicked 27 athletes off its national teams, reportedly for doping infractions.
There's always the possibility individual coaches and athletes will break the rules, perhaps motivated by the considerable financial incentives China doles out the Olympic medal winners. But there's a belief that the potential embarrassment of being outed as dope cheats has inspired a fairly robust and internationally respected anti-doping program in the build-up for Beijing in 2008.
"They haven't had any positive tests lately," says Jim Page, managing director of games performance for the United States Olympic Committee
"The didn't in Athens and they've taken some pretty dramatic steps lately to improve their testing and I believe, at the very highest level of sport, they're trying to do it the right way.