Dwight Howard could step into the centre circle at the Beijing Olympics and extend a hand toward China's Yao Ming.
Hosts China look for gold
In a few weeks, the American basketball player Dwight Howard could step into the centre circle at the Beijing Olympics and extend a hand toward China's Yao Ming. It just might be the most loaded handshake since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972 and met Mao Zedong. And rather than usher in an era of co-operation between uneven rivals, the way the Nixon-Mao clasp did, this one will launch a 17-day competition between athletic superpowers for domination of the Olympics.
The United States departed Athens in 2004 with the biggest share of gold and the most medals overall - 35 and 103, compared with 32 and 63 for China and 27 and 92 for Russia. To turn the tables, localsheroes such as the hurdler Liu Xiang and diver Guo Jingjing must repeat their breakthrough performances of four years ago. Their countrymen must perform up to expectations in events such as table tennis, gymnastics, rowing and sailing, where tradition or intensive development programs have given them a leg up.
Back home in Beijing, Jenny Lang Ping is still known as the Iron Hammer' and revered for leading the Chinese women's volleyball team past the United States to win the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Lang now coaches the Americans and knows what to expect from even her most devoted fans if her old team runs up against her new one again. "When we play against China. they always cheer for China and not for me," she said.
China's ambitions extend beyond hosting the most successful Summer Games ever and providing a modern, orderly backdrop for a worldwide TV audience projected at four billion. It intends to claim the spot once held by the Soviets and more recently, the Americans, atop the medals table, too. The planet's most populous nation has been told that goal is the next logical step in its transformation from third-world status to leader of the 21st century.
"This is not a simple sports event at all," said the Chinese Olympic Committee vice president Tu Mingde. "Its meaning surpasses the importance of sports itself." To make sure the games run smoothly, the host country will deploy 550,000 volunteers to assist spectators and athletes. * AP