ATHENS, Greece - The running joke in Athens these past two weeks was that there will be no reason to show up at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, because there will be no medals left. What a difference a venue makes. For the past seven years, everybody was most worried � arguably over-concerned � that Athens wouldn�t be ready for the Summer Games. But as the torch is handed to Beijing organizers, there is no such concern. The Chinese are so far ahead of schedule with their preparations, IOC President Jacque Rogge has asked them to slow down construction in order to be more flexible.
�That is the first time since I�ve been involved in the Olympic movement that I have ever known this to happen,� Rogge said.
But there�s always something to fret about, and this time it is whether the Chinese government will go overboard with its sports obsession. The 201 participant nations are bracing themselves for the sort of pre-programmed sports successes not seen since the Cold War.
The Chinese in Athens already were remarkable on all fields of play. They were a close second in the gold medal count behind the U.S., and expanded their horizons tremendously since Sydney. In 2000, the Chinese were little more than diving, badminton and table tennis specialists. Here in Athens, they captured medals in 15 different sports, including several power events.
By 2008, most figure, China should be ready to surpass the U.S. in gold medals and quite possibly in total medals as well. Clearly, the government has made its elite athletic programs a top priority. The days of �Friendship first, competition second,� have been replaced with a new slogan: �Winning first, friendship 82nd.�
This is an official philosophical change, more than anything. Chinese athletes always tried to win. But there was a time in November, 1978, when China�s national basketball team was ordered by coaches to walk out of Madison Square Garden rather than play an overtime during an exhibition against Rutgers University.
�A tie is the perfect ending,� the Chinese coach said then.
That�s not going to happen in 2008. There is nothing wrong with a more cutthroat attitude, of course. The U.S. has been kicking butt for years, stockpiling medals, creating enemies at Olympic Games all over the world. And individual Chinese sports federations, such as scandalized swimming, have occasionally gone way over the top in their search for success.
But this is a broader, almost official policy matter now for China, and it will be interesting to see how the Chinese victory parade will play out at the Games. Everybody wants the host country to win medals. Nobody wants the host country to turn the Games into a political advertisement (something George Bush did recently, when he took credit for the Afghan and Iraqi athletes in Athens).
Some trends were bound to continue at the next Summer Games, regardless of where they are held:
The continued success of beach volleyball as a viewing spectacle means that there will be ever more, not less, sand and flesh. Pity the staid, indoor volleyballers. Behind the scenes, there is talk of increasing the number of X-Games-style sports, so that the Olympic movement doesn�t lose its younger audience. China may not enjoy this aspect of the Games, but it will have to provide the beaches.
The U.S. Dream Team will continue to have its hands full, after four more years of NBA tutorial sessions for international stars. Next time, it should be no easier to convince the league�s American superstars to head over to China. They�ll want to wait until the Olympics are held in an NBA city near them.
Scoring controversies in the judged sports, like gymnastics and boxing, will never go away. No matter how often these systems are refined, they can�t hide the fact that judging is a subjective matter and open for both second-guessing and corruption.
U.S. track and field will keep producing wonderful sprinters, and terrible drug stories. BALCO is just the tip of the hypodermic needle. Other drug cells are bound to be discovered, and more famous and beautiful athletes are almost certain to be implicated.
A brand new crop of swimming and gymnastics teenagers will come from nowhere, and all-around champ Carly Patterson will have to fight for a spot to return as the team�s matronly, 20-year-old veteran.
�I�m just 16. I think there will be more chances,� Patterson said. If and when she gets to China, Patterson may be surprised to find that those Chinese women who were missing their vaults and landings in Athens, will stick them all in Beijing.
Everything will be ready, early, in China. But the medal stands are being built to fit the locals.
Joined: Jan 13, 2004
And individual Chinese sports federations, such as scandalized swimming,
Joined: Aug 12, 2004
U.S. track and field will keep producing wonderful sprinters, and terrible drug stories.