U.S. will be rocked by China's heavy medals

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

BEIJING – Across the Chinese media, the story has hit saturation coverage. China, once mocked as "the weaklings of Asia," is going to win what it calls the total medal count for the Beijing Games.

China, like most of the world, values gold medals above all and only counts them in the standings. With 47 and counting, its total dwarfs all other nations. The United States is second with 31.

In the U.S., all medals are counted, so the Americans still hold a lead (102-89 after Friday's competition) by that standard. The U.S. is trying to retain the total medal supremacy (by its count) it’s held since boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S. has won the most golds since 1996.

In China, the accounting differences don't matter. By the Chinese's standard, this is over. And that's the only standard. They talk about China's victory all day on state-run television. Stories are all over the nation's government-controlled major newspapers.

"China's Gold Boom!" screamed one show on CCTV.

The difficult thing for the Americans to stomach is the situation is unlikely to change in future Games. This isn't a one-time surge by a host nation. This isn't even a run of great success.

China's system of athletics places value on the medal count above all – as opposed to professional success or athlete choice. Whether the U.S. holds on this time or not, eventually China's system, coupled with its 1.3 billion people, should be unstoppable.

The U.S. can't and, despite USOC claims, probably won't want to compete in the same manner.

"China has been systematically targeting every single available medal, and we're going to have to do that in the future," the USOC's Peter Ueberroth said. "It's going to be very difficult (to dislodge China). The resources that they put toward their Olympic team and the population base and the dedication is fantastic."

The proof of America's challenge was in successful American athletes all over Beijing the last two days.

There was Hope Solo as she climbed a gold medal stand for women's soccer, Tayshaun Prince as he grabbed a rebound in a men's basketball semifinal victory over Argentina, and Jennie Finch as she teared up at winning just silver in what is expected to be the last softball competition. All are world-class athletes and all helped deliver a medal. If the goal is the medal count, though, none of the three may have maximized their ability.

If they had competed in individual sports where they could've racked up multiple medals, rather than be part of a team that won just one, those three could have been more valuable by medal count standards.

In China, they wouldn't have had a choice. A sports star, like the property a house is built on, is owned by the government. The pursuit of sport is for national pride. The motivation is societal, as opposed to capitalistic in the United States.

China selects athletes at young ages and pushes them into sports in which their expected body types might thrive. In the U.S., an athlete is allowed to follow his own path to success or failure.

The results are dramatic. In an effort to bolster its Olympic standing – the total medal count – China embarked on a program in which it placed particular emphasis in competitions that awarded many medals and where world competition wasn't particularly robust. As recently as 1988, China won just five golds.

In these Games, it has been powered by eight golds in weightlifting, seven in diving and five in shooting. While the Chinese have won their share of heavily contested competitions, such as women's gymnastics, the focus on more obscure sports has paid dividends.

China doesn't apologize for it. Nor should it. It has its goal and the perfect plan to attain it.

In the U.S., the athlete's goal is most often himself. The two sports that siphon off the most male athletes are football and basketball. Combined, they yield just a single medal.

Would Jake Long be a great hammer thrower and thus valuable to the USOC? Considering his powerful 6-foot-7, 315-pound frame, long arms and quick feet, it stands to reason yes. Long, though, was the first overall pick of the NFL draft and signed a contract worth $57 million to block for the Miami Dolphins.

No one in their right mind in the States would expect him to do anything else.

In men's basketball, where the U.S. is favored to win gold, imagine the value the players would have if they broke off into individual pursuits. LeBron James as a heavyweight boxer? Prince and his 6-8 height and 7-2 wing span as a swimmer? Michael Redd as a dead-eye shooter (rifle, not jump)?

If they were Chinese, they might produce many medals rather than a combined one.

While some Chinese athletes make considerable money in endorsements and performance contracts – hurdler Liu Xiang's likeness is everywhere here – the lack of professional sports opportunities create a mindset foreign to America and conducive to Olympic glory.

Then there are Solo and Finch, two high-profile female athletes. The U.S. is particularly strong in women's sports, although much of it is in team competition. Just on Thursday here, American teams in beach volleyball and soccer all won gold. Softball won silver, and basketball and indoor volleyball each advanced to gold-medal games.

That's an enormous amount of gifted athletes producing just five potential medals. And softball is slated for elimination from play after these Olympics.

Team sports, thanks to Title IX legislation from the early 1970s, have been a powerful and positive force in the lives of American girls, whether they reach this level or not. It's a system that remains the right one for the United States and through the years has produced 2,200 total medals (over 900 of them gold), more than twice any other nation.

China is coming, though. America will have to accept that what's best for it may not be best for nationalistic headlines or prideful medal counts.

Soon enough, the Chinese winning the medal count won't be a question of accounting or even such big news.

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