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The future arrived last Friday. It came in the form of a Chinese athlete like none ever seen before: Doffing a T-shirt that gave equal play to the flag of his Communist country and the Nike swoosh, powered by fast-twitch muscles that most Chinese thought they could never develop, leading from the start an Olympic final that no Chinese man had ever competed in, Liu Xiang didn't just win the 110-meter hurdles in Athens. He crushed all rivals in a world-record-tying 12.91 seconds. Hurdlers from traditional Olympic powers U.S. and Cuba came next, a full three steps behind. Liu wrapped himself in the Chinese flag, and suddenly the world was looking at 2008. "The biggest medal for us, no question," said one of the dozens of Chinese journalists cheering Liu. "Welcome to Beijing!" � Forgive the man for getting ahead of himself. Chinese reporters, officials and coaches were as shocked as anyone else by the 21-year-old Liu's triumph, not least because it came four years early.
Since July 2001, when Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Games, the Chinese sports machine has been geared toward peaking on its home turf, matching the city's already feverish construction program with athletic success. China took a young team to Athens, expecting tough losses but valuable seasoning, and instead showed that it's already the U.S.'s prime rival for Olympic supremacy. Consider this just the beginning of China's great leap forward: The U.S. easily won the overall medal count in Athens, with 103, but the race for gold stayed neck and neck until the competition's end on Sunday, when the U.S. finished with 35 gold medals to China's 32.
"That's very surprising for me," said Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, who played for the Chinese basketball team, which finished eighth in Athens. "Eight years ago in the Atlanta Olympics we had 16 gold medals, but now 20 is nothing. It's like in China we say, 'The beans out of the bottle.' We're getting better."
Russia was runner-up to the U.S., with 92 overall medals to China's 63, but only 27 were gold. No one's counting out the bear just yet, but Chinese officials are stalking bigger game. "In the next four years we have a lot to do," said Gu Yaoming, general secretary of the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC). "To have a successful Olympic Games, first we have to have good facilities and management, and second our athletes should win more medals, more gold medals. It's very hard to pass the United States. I don't say in the year 2008 we can pass the United States. But we will try."
No one should doubt it. The number of Chinese gold medals in Athens wasn't nearly as significant as some of the events in which they were won. Aside from Liu's sprint medal, the Chinese also won the women's doubles in tennis, the women's 100-meter breaststroke and the 500-meter race in two-man canoeing. "A breakthrough," said one of the canoeists, Guanliang Meng, "since we had not participated in this event before." China had developed women distance runners before, but here was another surprise: Just as Liu's victory was sinking in, Huina Xing coasted to win the women's 10,000 meters. "Two miracles," Gu said.
Hardly. Liu and Huina are products of the COC's decade-old 119 Project, which is dedicated to improving China's performance in swimming, aquatics and track and field, which account for 119 of the 301 Olympic gold medals. Some $50 million a year (half from the government, half from corporate sponsors) is dedicated to the care and training of athletes. And, in its effort to go beyond the usual Chinese specialties of diving, artistic gymnastics, table tennis, volleyball and weightlifting, China has been hiring foreign coaches. It brought six to Athens, including U.S. basketball coach Del Harris, who, shadowed by a translator, spent the last four months shaping Yao and an inexperienced cadre of players into a team. "I have never coached a group I had more respect for," Harris said.
Still, Harris had never met a challenge like this. Only Yao and Harris's translator knew English, and the 67-year-old coach had to wean his charges from five-hour practices and a culture of deference that extended all the way to the paint. "You can't," Harris told his team, "say, 'Sorry, I fouled you' or 'Please, take this rebound.'" In the end it all came together. In pool play China played smart and hard, and it scored a great upset over world champion Serbia and Montenegro. "For China to pull that one out?" said NBA commissioner David Stern. "It means that they're coming."
That was the great subtext of the Athens Games, despite the fact that we've heard it before. China, with 1.3 billion people, has long been considered the sleeping giant of sports, an unstoppable force if it would only open its eyes. And though the country's medal count has steadily grown in every Olympics since a team from mainland China returned to the Games in 1984, the gains have been matched by setbacks. Being seen as a brutal dictatorship by Western countries contributed to Beijing's narrowly losing the vote to host the 2000 Games to Sydney in 1993. A rising group of Chinese swimmers emerged that year, but many tested positive for doping in 1994. And just before the 2000 Olympics (and the ensuing vote on the host city for 2008), China yanked 27 athletes with spotty tests, including six women distance runners, from the roster going to Sydney. For the moment, anyway, the Chinese seem clean; of the top three powers in Athens, only China sailed through without BALCO-like rumblings or a positive test.
Instead, the Chinese delegation obsessed over daily medal counts and its racial inferiority complex. The day before Liu equaled the Afro-British Colin Jackson's 11-year-old world record in the 110-meter hurdles, Xiao Tian, deputy secretary general of the COC, all but surrendered China's chances of ever developing a world-class sprinter. "Notice the phenomenon in the 100 meters, there are very few white people," Xiao said. "Mostly blacks. So we have to focus on our stronger sports."
China's track and field coach, Feng Shuyong, attributed Liu's win to his technical skills because "physically we Asians are not as good as Europeans and Africans." Yet Liu's triumph could begin to change such thinking. On Friday night, after dedicating his victory to his country, Asia and "all the yellow-skinned people," Liu went into his press conference and said, "Because I'm Chinese and [have] the physiology of the Asian race, to me this is a miracle. But because of it, now I expect more miracles in the future."