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August 29, 2004 9:32 pm

Young Chinese team exerts its strength

By VICKI MICHAELIS

USA TODAY

ATHENS, Greece - Basketball superstar Yao Ming marched singularly as he carried China's flag into the Athens Olympic opening ceremonies, several steps ahead of the Chinese delegation, his 7-5 frame towering above the scene.

At the next Summer Olympics, in Beijing in 2008, the entire Chinese delegation is likely to be out front and presenting a high profile. With a national record 63 medals, 32 of them gold, China's athletes showed in Athens they are primed to pump up host-country passions four years from now with a serious run at the USA's Summer Games medal supremacy.

``They have a great sports machine that we're just seeing coming to the fore,'' U.S. Olympic Committee interim chief executive officer Jim Scherr says. ``Their team is going to be really impressive in Beijing.''

In Athens the USA extended its medals reign to three consecutive Summer Olympics, winning 103 overall medals and 35 golds to lead both categories. China was on the USA's heels in the gold medal count and finished third in overall medals behind Russia's 92.

In order to season its 2008 hopefuls, China brought its youngest Olympic team ever to Athens, in some cases leaving reigning world champions at home. So while China's rise has been on the Olympic radar, its gold medal haul exceeded expectations for the Chinese athletes, 80 percent of who made their Games debuts in Athens.

``That's very surprising for me,'' Yao says. ``Eight years ago, at Atlanta's Olympics, we got 16 gold medals and I don't remember how many silver medals. At that time, 16 was so many.''

He adds, ``In China, we say, `The bean is out of the bottle,' `` a proverbial reference to a beanpot being so full, not one more bean could fit.

Although the majority of the gold medals came in sports China traditionally has dominated, such as diving and table tennis, surprises in sports such as tennis, women's wrestling and track hinted at the breadth of China's potential in 2008.

Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian, seeded eighth in doubles tennis, won China's first Olympic medal in the sport by beating second-seeded Conchita Martinez and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain. Wang Xu, a 19-year-old Beijing native, defeated five-time world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi of Japan in a women's wrestling semifinal and went on to claim gold in the 158.5-pound category.

Liu Xiang, a 21-year-old from Shanghai, won the men's 110-meter hurdles in a world record-tying 12.91 seconds, beating silver medalist Terrence Trammell of the United States with technical efficiency by a yawning 0.27 seconds. Liu's victory, coming on the same night that 20-year-old Xing Huina won in the women's 10,000, was China's most significant of the 2004 Games.

``It will be a great encouragement and very influential for developing sports in the future,'' says Xiao Tian, secretary general of the Chinese sports delegation, ``because track and field is the mother of other sports, the most basic one.''

When Liu got his medal, he leaped to the podium's top step and held a Chinese flag aloft his shoulders, as if raising a curtain on a new era.

His celebration heralded a warning that will have U.S. Olympic officials, coaches and athletes parsing and tuning their programs and preparations: A new Summer Games superpower has arrived.

``The traditional strong nations that dominate the scene now will have to work extremely hard in the future to be able to maintain their ranking,'' International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge says.

The USOC already is planning to funnel more resources to sports that could yield five or more medals, Scherr says.

That means staying strong in swimming (which brought a U.S.-leading 28 medals in Athens) and track and field (25) and trying to improve in sports such as rowing, shooting, sailing, cycling, equestrian and wrestling.

``Given everything we've experienced, this will be the toughest task we've faced outside the United States,'' Scherr said of topping the medals table in Beijing.

While victories such as Liu's in the hurdles and Luo Xuejuan's in the women's 100-meter breaststroke can inspire a generation to take on the challenge of breaking the grip of traditional powers on track and swimming, before 2008 the Chinese will channel their energies toward multiple-medal sports that promise faster returns.

In Athens, China won nine medals in shooting, eight in weightlifting and six of the eight available golds in diving.

Only in gymnastics did the Chinese have mysteriously substandard results, winning just one gold and two bronze medals in artistic and one in trampoline.

Yet Chinese sports officials demur when asked about their potential for prowess on home soil.

``I told (USOC chairman) Peter Ueberroth, who said he was watching China pile up gold medals with concern: `Don't worry, we will not topple you,' `` Chinese Olympic Committee President Yuan Weimin says.

The infrastructure for dominance, though, is in place. During a recent visit to China, USOC managing director of sports performance Steve Roush walked into a hall echoing with the staccato clacking of dozens of 9- and 10-year-old kids practicing table tennis. Other U.S. officials and coaches report seeing new velodromes, tennis courts, white-water courses, playing fields and gymnasiums across the world's most populous country, all filled with athletes bearing the yoke of China's medal hopes.

``They're putting a tremendous amount of energy, money and manpower and womanpower into training athletes,'' says Michael Cohen, who coaches U.S. super heavyweight lifter Cheryl Haworth. ``And when you have 50 Cheryl Haworths in the super heavyweight, you can interchange them and you don't have to worry about it. We do the same thing in professional football.''

China does not have professional sports leagues. Yao, who plays for the NBA's Houston Rockets, is one of the country's few professional athletes. In such a void, now that China has a free-market economy, Olympic sport bodies can attract unparalleled sponsorship dollars.

That, combined with the huge sums the Chinese government is sure to contribute to athlete training as it puts a premium on host-nation performance in the 2008 Games, has Scherr predicting China's investment in the medals race ``will dwarf what we will spend.'' The USOC spent more than $380 million in the last four years preparing athletes for the Athens Games.

He Huixian, deputy head of the Chinese sports delegation, says China's government invested about $100 million in Olympic sports this year with another $25 million coming from sponsors. She says she expects both amounts to increase as the 2008 Games draw nearer.

In recent years, China has turned to foreign coaches, including some from the USA, with expertise in sports not familiar to the Chinese to train their athletes. Del Harris, a former NBA head coach and current assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, coached China's basketball team in Athens.

The team, led by Yao, reached the medal round with an upset of Serbia and Montenegro and posted its best Olympic finish, eighth place. Four years from now, nothing would put an exclamation mark on China's performance quite like the sight of Yao standing on the medal podium while the Chinese national anthem plays.

``I can tell you this - China will be very proud of that team in 2008,'' says another Mavericks assistant, Donnie Nelson, who coached the Lithuanian team in Athens. ``Yao at that time will be in his prime. A lot of these guys will be more experienced and ready for that (international) format.

``The future in China is very bright.''

- (Contributing: Gary Mihoces of USA TODAY)

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

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IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

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DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

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LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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