Friday, August 29, 2008

Inside the Rings

August 25, 2008
Inside the Rings
China Fulfills Its Wish for Olympic Domination

BEIJING — In a country of numerologists, it was surely not lost on the Chinese that the last medal they won at their undeniably successful Olympics was also their 100th.

It came late Sunday afternoon, shortly before the Closing Ceremony, from boxer Zhang Zhilei in the super heavyweight division, and the only thing that did not seem entirely appropriate as Zhang collected his prize was that he had just finished second.

Gold, not silver, was the color that defined these Games for the Chinese. They finished with 51 gold medals, the highest figure for any nation at an Olympics in 20 years, and they won them across a wider range of sports than any team in Beijing.

“Here the message is clear; you’ve got to win,” said China’s fencing coach Christian Bauer, a Frenchman, in an interview last week with the French newspaper L’Equipe. “When you’ve got a gold medal here, you’re somebody. When you have a silver, you’re not.”

The individual most defined by gold, of course, was Michael Phelps, whose eight gold medals included dramatic, too-close-to-call finishes in the 100-meter butterfly and the 4x100 freestyle relay. It will take an unimaginable effort to trump Phelps. Who will have the ways and means to even compete in nine medal events at a future Olympics, much less win nine?

Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, certainly did all within his preternatural power to match Phelps’s global impact: winning the 100 and the 200 and the 4x100 relay all in world-record times and giving his ailing sport its latest shot of adrenaline.

One can only hope that there is no dark epilogue to either Bolt’s or Phelps’s phenomenal success stories. This is an era when too many larger-than-life sports figures have turned out to be frauds, including Marion Jones, who has now been stripped of the five track and field medals she won in Sydney at the 2000 Games

“I know, for me, I’m clean,” Phelps said. “I purposely wanted to do more tests to prove it. People can say what they want, but the facts are the facts.”

The only prominent athlete to test positive during these Games was Lyudmila Blonska of Ukraine, who was stripped of her silver medal in the heptathlon and removed from the women’s long jump final. But the Games’ competitive landscape was also altered before the Olympics began when track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, suspended seven Russian athletes for tampering with their doping samples, including Yelena Soboleva, the overwhelming favorite to win the women’s 1,500 in Beijing.

With Soboleva absent, the Kenyan women won their first Olympic gold medals on the track, taking the 800 and 1,500.

The Russian Olympic team showed signs of decline, dropping to third in the overall medal standings behind the United States, which finished with 110, and China with its conveniently round 100.

The Russians won 36 gold medals and 88 over all in 2000; they won 27 golds and 92 over all in Athens. This time the final tallies were 23 and 72.

It will be intriguing to see whether Russia, with its increased national wealth and intention to upgrade its sports facilities, will be able to reverse the downward trend in time for London 2012.

The Chinese, however, are clearly in the ascendancy. They continue to dominate in diving, weightlifting, badminton and table tennis. But they also won their first Olympic gold medals here in archery, rowing, boxing, sailing and the gymnastics discipline of trampoline. They won their first medals in beach volleyball, synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and field hockey.

Remarkably, they won the gold medal count despite failing to win any golds in traditional team sports or in track and field, which awards more medals than any other sport. They also failed to win a medal in basketball, the sport that clearly generates the most passion in China, as was evident to anyone who had the earsplitting experience of watching the national teams’ games.

In track and field, the Chinese won just two bronzes and lost their biggest status symbol, Liu Xiang, to an Achilles’ tendon injury before he could even clear the first hurdle. But Chinese athletes were so successful that even the disappointment of Liu could not spoil this extraordinary national celebration.

China’s rise meant less gold for the rest of the world, with 52 nations winning gold medals here compared with 56 in Athens in 2004. But the overall spread was more balanced, with 87 nations winning at least one medal here, including Olympic minnows like Togo and Mauritius, compared with 74 in Athens.

With impeccable timing with London looming, the British were the biggest mover, climbing from 10th in the medals standings last time to fourth by any measure this time. Their 19 gold medals and 47 overall medals gave them their best overall performance at an Olympics in a century.

Rebecca Adlington, their 19-year-old surprise double gold medalist in swimming, and Chris Hoy, their triple gold medalist in track cycling, will surely not lack for attention over the next four years.

Nor, of course, will Phelps or Bolt, both of whom intend to compete in London. But they, like all future Olympians who try to match their achievements, now have an exceedingly difficult act to follow.

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