James Lawton: Greatest stories at the Games are etched in gold of Chinese characters

British glory has been so relentless in these 29th Olympics, and that of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps so spectacular, it has been easy to forget that the most remarkable story of all has been written in Chinese characters.

It has been the long march of the biggest, most carefully vetted army in the history of organised sport and the extent of the pressure applied to those selected will probably never be accurately measured.

Some have been as programmed and unblinking as Chairman Mao's Red Guards, some have cracked as though the weight of their vast nation had been directed entirely on to their shoulders – and others, the smallest of minorities, it has appeared, have been as defiantly balanced as Tian Jia, a 27-year-old beach volleyball player who here yesterday refused to hang her head in shame despite the fact that she had won merely a silver medal. Her stance, in its way, was as startling as if a member of the Terracotta army had suddenly come to life.

Apparently unmindful that her compatriot Zhu Qinan, the defending Olympic champion in the 10-metre air rifle shooting category had rushed away in tears at the dawn of the Games after failing to hold her nerve, and that another reigning champion, the superstar hurdler Liu Xiang hid his head when injury cut him down in the heats, Tian Jia declared that whoever you are, and however immense the sporting programme in which you are a small and eminently dispensable cog, you can only give everything you have.

This, she also pointed out, is especially true when you have just gone down to the best players in the world, the American champions Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor. who were winning their 108th consecutive match.

Tian Jia might have added that her conquerors Kerri and Misty were not picked out for training in a strange game from a culture which might have been devised on another planet. They grew up playing in the sand.

Such is the pressure around every Chinese competitor in these Games that the strong-minded Tian Jia might well have made her statement without the provocation which came when all the fans were packed into the buses and driven away.

She and her team-mate Wang Jie had, after all, slaved to reward some of the most intense support received by any of the army of "patriot" competitors who have met, give or take a few heart-broken casualties, the government edict that they must finish at the top of the medals table, and thus beat America, for the first time in their Olympic history.

Each American point yesterday provoked groans from the fans who sat in the steady downpour with their little red flags poised even as the rain ran down their noses. Each Chinese riposte, in the 21-18, 21-18 defeat, brought howls of delight. It was part sport, part political rally – and then there was the question that brought the glint of defiance to Tian Jia's eyes.

She was asked by a Chinese journalist why the passion had left her play when another gold beckoned for the people's athletic army. In preliminary games she had been the noisy, scrappy one, yelling at the sky and urging on the taller Wang Jie at critical moments.

"No," she said. "It was not like that. I didn't lose my motivation today – quite the opposite. I knew I had done all I could and that I could win if I played better than I have ever done before.

"In the early games I wasn't so sure about myself or our chances of progressing, and when you are not so certain of what you can do, you do shout more. Maybe you are trying to convince yourself.

"But today I felt very calm and I knew that there was only one thing I could do. It was to play the best I could and I can assure you that was what I did.

"We are quite new to this game and the Americans we faced are great players. They have a great legacy and we are catching up – but I think we will be better in the next Olympics. In sport all you can do is fight as hard as you can. We just had to accept that we were against the better players – but that was only after the game was over."

You may say it was absurd for a key collision in the sports war declared against America by China when they were granted the right to host the most lavishly bestowed Olympics in the movement's 112-year history to occur on a square of sand dumped in the middle of a modern sports arena for a game that was, entirely for recreational reasons, born dressed in bikinis and swimming trunks on a Californian beach between surfing sessions.

But as far as the overlords of Chinese sportsmen and women were concerned this was a skirmish as important as any other across the whole Olympic front. The significance of every "spike" and desperate retrieval was that each one might make the difference between gold, silver and bronze.

As it was the Chinese earned silver and bronze, the latter coming when their No 2 team, Xue Chen and Zhang Xi, beat the Brazilians Talita and Renata in the third-place match, to further stretch the Chinese lead in the medals table. They also earned tributes from America's most celebrated players.

"These girls fought so hard and played so well," said Kerri Walsh, "that it was impossible to believe they have been playing the game for just a few years. In London in four years' time I know they will give anyone in the world as much as, if not more than, they can handle. They are coming on so fast."

No doubt the casualties will also continue to accumulate.

Liu Xiang the hurdler is the most conspicuous one this time. Even before his injury, he was showing signs of suffering from the immense weight of expectation which came when he won so brilliantly in Athens. Initially rejected from his sports school in Shanghai because it was believed he would not grow tall enough to be the high jumper his promise had indicated, Liu Xiang remade himself as a hurdler. His breakthrough in Athens turned him into the prototype for Chinese success on the track.

His technique was decreed to be a matter for significant scientific research. Another consequence was that he carried the Chinese flag at the opening ceremony. He looked about as composed as an ambushed rabbit and when he failed to qualify earlier this week his coach appeared on national television and wept his way through an apology.

Such are the pressures that have accompanied the Great Leap Forward in Chinese sport these last few days, one that has seen China complete the process that started in Atlanta 12 years ago when they won 16 gold medals against America's 44. In Sydney four years later China landed 28 and America 37. In Athens in 2004 it was China 32, American 36. Here, the Chinese march into the distance hungry for any medal that comes to them anywhere, anyhow.

You could tell this was so when Misty May-Treanor made a small joke about the game she plays, on this occasion in a near monsoon. "We have no problem with the rain," she said. "It is another reason why we wear bathing suits." The Chinese, except for Tian Jia, missed the joke, as inevitably as they did the gold they hated to see slip away.

Golden leap forward

China's medals in the past six games:

Year/Gold/Silver/Bronze/Position

1988 5/11/12/11

1992 16/22/16/4

1996 16/22/12/4

2000 28/16/15/3

2004 32/17/14/2

2008* 46/15/22/1

*as of last night

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