OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Chinese embark on another long march: Ken Jones reports from Barcelona on the impact of a rising power in world sport

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AS YOU would expect of a news agency serving one fifth of the world's population, Xinhua are installed here in premises that could probably accommodate the entire Chinese delegation and its baggage.

Visitors to this hive of oriental endeavour on a landing at the main press centre get what can be best described as the polite elbow. 'Yes, we have handbooks about our team, but we need them,' an earnest employee said. 'Gold medal prospects? This is not known. Unfortunately, it is not possible to supply further information.'

At the opening ceremony, the People's Republic of China paraded the seventh largest team. When the Games move to Atlanta in 1996 it is likely that only the United States, the host nation, will turn out more competitors.

Setting aside the old ideological constraints, embracing the elitism Mao frowned upon, the People's Republic is becoming a major power in sport.

Respect for them grows. Unexpectedly, they took their first gold medal of the 1992 Games on Sunday when Yong Zhuang, 19, led all the way and swam nearly half a second faster than ever before to defeat the world record holder, Jenny Thompson of the United States, in the 100 metres freestyle.

Fu Mingxia, a girl of only 14, yesterday won the platform diving, remarkably 50 points better than Elena Mirochina, who gained a silver medal for the Unified Team.

With a sharp eye and steady hands, Zhang Shan embarrassed male competitors in the mixed skeet shooting, qualifying out in front for the semi-finals with six faultless rounds.

Huang Zhihong, an amply proportioned lady of 27, the first Asian gold medallist in a World Championship when she won in Tokyo last year, looks unbeatable in the shot putt.

It remains to be seen whether this progress can be extended to more visible Olympic events but the influence of East German coaches, who could not bring themselves to abandon communism when the Berlin Wall came down, is already evident.

Inevitably, this has raised suspicions that the Chinese have been introduced to illegal practices, running the risk of exposure and expulsion, although Yong Zhuang vigorously denied this after her triumph in the pool. 'It is completely wrong,' she said. 'As it doesn't exist, I can't help but deny it.'

As there is probably more to come from the People's Republic, their steady advancement is being viewed with more than passing interest by representatives of NBC, the American television network who successfuly bid dollars 401m (around pounds 212m) for these Games, and will go even higher to secure rights in Atlanta.

When the Soviet Union collapsed last year, NBC were left without the ideological conflict that figured so prominently in the minds of American viewers and the company's accountants. 'Without the Soviet thing it could be that we are looking at just another major sporting event,' an executive said.

Thus China's rise becomes commercially important, as is Cuban loyalty to the principles laid down by Fidel Castro.

In the stadium last Saturday night China marched in great array, their regimented smartness in ironic contrast to the splintered formation that was once the all- powerful Soviet team. 'You are looking at the next great force in sport,' somebody said. 'A nation with enormous latent power waiting to be unleashed.'

It will take time and may not happen in this millenium. But the signs are there in considerable improvement and burgeoning confidence. The old values die hard. Huang Zhihong has an outstanding chance to become the first Chinese track and field athlete to win an Olympic gold medal but Kan Fulin, her coach, said: 'Neither Huang nor I places much importance in winning the gold. We believe victory in competition is the reward for difficult training, much like a farmer reaps a good harvest after a year's hard work in the field.' Disarmingly, China's most successful track and field athlete so far said: 'What I have done is no more newsworthy than if I had swallowed 500 eels.'

In the great tradition of Mao, the People's Republic is on a long march. If only they were more inclined to speak about it.

(Photograph omitted)