BEIJING – China stunned the world by sweeping to the top of the Olympic medals table at Beijing 2008 — and ominously for their rivals, they look ready to do it again in London.
Powerhouse performances from marquee athletes Liu Xiang, who recently equalled the 110 metres hurdles world record, and swimmer Sun Yang indicate China will prove that Beijing was no one-off.
Four years ago, China won 51 golds, 21 silvers and 28 bronzes to top the victory table for the first time in an Olympic Games, relegating the mighty United States to second place.
Together with an exquisite opening ceremony, state-of-the-art venues and measures that even extended to clearing Beijing’s infamous smog, it was an unmistakable statement from the emerging superpower.
Now China will look to extend its domination to London, capital of one-time colonial power Britain.
Liu clocked a wind-assisted 12.87 seconds in the 110m hurdles in the run-up to London, matching history’s fastest time, as he looks to atone for Beijing when his injury withdrawal deflated a packed Bird’s Nest Stadium.
“My dream is just to stand on the Olympic track,” Liu told reporters. “I hope to keep this good form and give full play to my training.”
Sun looks certain to be among the medals in the pool, after obliterating Grant Hackett’s 10-year-old 1,500m record at the world championships last year in Shanghai.
But the real story of China’s success is in the medal-heavy niche sports, after they mined table-tennis, badminton, diving, shooting and weightlifting, as well as gymnastics, for 38 of their 51 titles in Beijing.
Among those were a clean-sweep of the table-tennis events and seven out of eight diving golds, eight of 15 weightlifting titles, 11 of 18 in gymnastics, and half of the 10 shooting categories.
It’s a pattern that’s likely to be repeated in London, with China reigning supreme in badminton, diving and table tennis, and narrowly ahead of the United States at last year’s world gymnastics championships.
A perfect five badminton titles looks on with Lin Dan, widely seen as the sport’s greatest player, favourite to defend his men’s title after leading China to an emphatic victory in the Thomas Cup team tournament in May.
In table tennis, China has lost multiple Olympic women’s champions Zhang Yining and Wang Nan to retirement, but there’s no shortage of replacements on what seems a conveyor belt of lightning paddlers.
Such stars include Zhang Jike, the current men’s world champion and World Cup title-holder, and Ding Ning, who holds the equivalent women’s honours.
“The Olympic Games hold different meanings to different players. To us, it only means to win the gold medals,” said Liu Guoliang, head coach of China’s men’s table tennis team.
China’s formidable “Dream Team” of divers swept all gold medals on offer at last year’s world championships in Shanghai, and they will be desperate to go one better than 2008, when they fell just one Olympic title short.
“Our winning streak may lead to complacency and make us neglect our problems. It is a challenge, actually,” said perfectionist team manager Zhou Jihong.
According to coaches and athletes, the success of Beijing re-invigorated China’s Olympic-focused, state-run sports system and ensured ample funding for facilities and the training of a new generation of competitors.
The Soviet-style sports schools, which select and groom potential athletes from a young age, often with hours of tough training every day, have also produced world champions in swimming, judo, wrestling, boxing, archery and rowing.
Despite their successes, Chinese sports officials are, as ever, playing down hopes for the 380 Chinese athletes expected to participate in London, saying they will face “strong challenges” in repeating the feats of Beijing.
“Because a number of Olympic and world champions retired after the Beijing Games, a younger generation will form the bulk of the Chinese Olympic legion,” said Cai Zhenhua, China’s vice sports minister and an ex-table tennis player.
“Some of our young athletes lack international exposure and consistency, so we cannot be very optimistic about their performances,” added Cai.