Scooping a pork-and-leek dumpling out of his wok, Lin Qinjian pauses to consider the question. "No, I don't know where Athens is," he says, before hazarding a guess. "Is it one of those little countries in Africa?" The Beijing dumpling vendor, though, knows exactly what will happen in his native city in 2008. "The Olympics, of course," Lin says, clicking his tongue with exasperation at such an obvious question. "Everyone knows that." Athens may be the birthplace of the Olympics and this year's host city, but the Chinese are focused on the next Games. "It's about more than just sports," says Ren Hai, a professor at the Beijing Sport University. "In 2008 China's development will be acknowledged and accepted by the world."
Hyperactive fleets of bulldozers and cranes are working
around the clock to turn China's capital into a gleaming, high-tech metropolis. Even as Athens races to finish its sporting venues, Chinese organizers smugly proclaim that all major construction for Beijing 2008 will be finished two years ahead of time. Such a monumental building boom is far easier to direct in an authoritarian state in which urban planners can reduce historic neighborhoods into rubble with a single decree. But the majority of Beijing's residents seem to agree with their government's decision to trade crumbling buildings for showcase stadiums and sleek expressways, and to spend $2.3 billion to renovate the airport. "The Olympics represent modernity and hope to the Chinese people," says Zhao Yu, a sports historian whose book Superpower Dream chronicles China's Olympian efforts. "People can hardly wait for Athens to finish so the real celebration can begin."
The 17 days of the Beijing Games will highlight not just fancy venues and eager-to-please hosts but also a Chinese team that will be hard to beat. In barely a quarter century China transformed itself from an Olympic afterthought to No. 3 in the Sydney medal tally, after the U.S. and Russia. In 2008 China is counting on a combination of home field advantage and the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has invested in sports programs to catapult it past even those two powerhouses. So far the Chinese have mostly excelled in sports that cater to small, lithe physiques (diving, gymnastics) or in lower-profile events into which the country has poured money (shooting, weightlifting). The country's so-called "gold medal strategy"—a policy that is approved by no less than China's cabinet—is also focused on developing women's sports, which the Chinese discovered are underfunded in many Western nations. In Sydney, China's women bettered Chairman Mao's famous maxim that "women hold up half the sky" by winning 57.6% of the nation's medals.
But the ultimate goal is success in what one Chinese sports official refers to as "the real sports, the ones with big balls and big dreams." With NBA All-Star Yao Ming leading the way, the nation is betting on its own basketball Dream Team by '08. The Chinese also hope to dominate the diamond in four years' time, even though they have never fielded an Olympic baseball team.
Athens may offer a glimpse of China's potential. In May, Liu Xiang, a 21-year-old Shanghai native, upset world champion Allen Johnson of the U.S. in the 110-meter hurdles at a Grand Prix event in Osaka, Japan. If Liu strikes gold next month, it will erase the embarrassing fact that although the nation of 1.3 billion won eight shooting medals in Sydney, it earned only one track and field medal, in the unheralded women's 20-kilometer race walk. Chinese citizens also hope that by 2008 the nation will be able to end another mystifying Olympic drought: Thus far, a nation with more bicycles than the United States has people has never won a gold medal in cycling. Time to shift into a higher gear.