US turns the spotlight on host nation as China tightens grip on medal table

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The Independent Online

The United States used to air such complaints against the once-dominant Russians and East Germans. Now they are heard about China, the latest threat to America's supremacy at the Olympics. How to compete against opponents who have the financial resources of a centralised state behind them – and if this was not enough – are ready to cheat as well?

This questioning, recurring every four years with the calendar predictability of the Games themselves, was at full throttle yesterday as China tightened its grip on the medal table in Beijing. After six days of competition, it led the US by 22 golds to 10, the most widely accepted yardstick of Olympic prowess, and was ahead by 35 to 34 even in preferred method of reckoning here, counting the overall total.

The latest complaints were to be heard after China's women (or should that be pre-pubescent girls?) completed a historic gymnastic double over the Americans, winning the team gold a day after the country's men had done the same.

Once upon a time, doubts used to surround childlike Eastern-Bloc gymnasts, amid dark mutterings that they were maintained in their sylph-like, super-flexible condition by drugs that held back the onset of puberty, even though the girls had reached 16, the minimum age to compete.

Now the US, conquered by a group of girls with an average height of 4ft9in and an average weight of 77lbs (less than six stone) is openly challenging that last premise. "One of the girls has a missing tooth," complained Martha Karolyi, in charge of the US team, suggesting that the young lady in question was still shedding her baby teeth. She had no proof, Ms Karolyi admitted, "but it could be true. That doesn't give us an even playing field. Certain countries go by the rules and certain countries may not."

Rigid enforcement of Olympic rules – assuming of course they have been breached in this case – would help level the gymnastic field. But there are no rules governing state support. Here, too, US officials insist the advantage is tilted against their team, one of the few that receives no government support. Instead, it depends on an annual $150m from commercial sponsors, domestic fundraising, and a share of the revenues of the International Olympic Committee.

"When you're talking about competition at this level, it requires financial support," said Darryl Seibel, spokesman of the US Olympic Committee. But the funding available to his team was "probably not even in the top five" among national Olympic committees.

The obvious solution of course is money earmarked by the federal government, given that China has 370,000 children in state-financed sports schools alone. And Mr Seibel dropped a heavy hint that the committee would indeed be lobbying Washington for funds.

If the US is routed by China in the 2008 medal count, it may yet happen. After all, was it not a US president who, when the Soviet Union had sent a man into space, vowed that an American would be standing on the moon in 10 years? That promise was spectacularly fulfilled. In athletics too, the result might be similar, with the unfettered assistance of the state.

But that is not the American way – and nor is it likely to be. The plain fact is that the nation only rediscovers its interest in most Olympic sports every fourth summer. Michael Phelps may for a fortnight own the most famous name in the land. But for rest of the time, even a medal-rich discipline like swimming is not on the country's radar.

The same goes for the blue-riband events in track and field, where American athletes traditionally dominate. Apart from the summers of presidential election years, the only occasion a US sprinter makes the headlines is when there's a drug bust. Money in US sport is a function of TV audiences, with American football, basketball and baseball in the vanguard.

Maybe everyone should cool it. The real medal champions by one measure are not the Chinese, the Americans or the Russians, but Armenia.

Calculated by medals per head of population, Armenia with three (bronze) medals for its 3 million population, leads the field, followed by Georgia, and then Australia (with 16 medals for its 21 million inhabitants). To win this championship, China would have to amass more than 1,000 medals, a tall order even for their system.

Gold, silver, bronze: the changing face of the medals table

Barcelona 1992

Ex-USSR 45 g, 38 s, 29 b

USA 37, 34, 37

Germany 33, 21, 28

China 16, 22, 16

Atlanta 1996

USA 44, 32, 25

Russia 26, 21, 16

Germany 20, 18, 27

China 16, 22, 12

Sydney 2000

USA 40, 24, 33

Russia 32, 28, 28

China 28, 16, 15

Australia 16, 25, 17

Athens 2004

USA 35, 39, 29

China 32, 17, 14

Russia 27, 27, 38

Australia 17, 16, 16

Beijing 2008

China 22, 8, 5

USA 10, 9, 15

S Korea 6, 7, 3

Italy 6, 4, 3