It was the best of times, but not after being the worst of times. By the end of day one of competition in the home Olympic arena yesterday, China had two gleaming golds on the medal board. Two down then, and just 38 to go to meet the host nation's target to achieve world domination for the first time in the quadrennial test of all-round international sporting strength.
The first of the golden brace came courtesy of weightlifter Chen Xiexia in the women's 48kg division. Inspired by the chants of the Chinese spectators in the Beijing University Gymnasium, the 25-year-old lifted 95kg in the snatch and 117kg in the clean and jerk to set a Games record for the latter and for the total weight of 212kg. "I have been thinking of winning a medal," she said, "but I never thought it would be the first gold for China."
The second was claimed by Peng Wei in the men's 10m air pistol in the Finals Hall at the Beijing Shooting Range. "I had low expectations for myself," he said. Sadly, the same could not be said of the ponytailed Du Li, who carried the hopes of 1.3bn people when she strapped on her green and red jacket in the Qualification Hall at the same shooting complex early yesterday morning. The tortuous experience that followed gave a glimpse of the kind of ordeal that Liu Xiang can expect when he goes for gold in the 110m hurdles in the Bird's Nest Stadium, with the host nation expecting the man from Shanghai to repeat his success in Athens four years ago and deliver a "Cathy Freeman moment" with a winning home run in the showpiece track and field arena.
In those Athens Games, Du won the first gold on offer, in the women's 10m air rifle. In the international spotlight, it gave her 15 minutes of fame. In her homeland, it guaranteed four years of mounting pressure. The host nation expected nothing less than another Midas touch of the trigger finger from the 26-year-old to launch the Chinese gold rush right from event one.
It wasn't to be. When Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, finished presenting the medals in the Finals Hall, it was the national anthem of the Czech Republic that rang round an arena that had long since emptied of native spectators. For Du, there was not even a bronze lining, let alone a silver one.
She qualified for the eight-woman final in fourth place, one point down on the Czech leader, Katerina Emmons. The tension soon told, though, after Du stepped on to the range in the Finals Hall. With the last round of 10 shots to come, she needed the three women clear ahead of her in the standings to somehow shoot blanks. It has happened before in the Olympic arena. Matt Emmons, the American husband of Katerina, blew the gold medal in the 50m three-position rifle in Athens by contriving to fire at the wrong target with his final shot. It was to him that Mrs Emmons turned to give a smile of satisfaction after managing to keep her last shot on the straight and narrow.
Du, having slipped to fifth in the finishing order, cut a disconsolate figure as she left the hall. Pulling her right arm up to her face in a vain attempt to hide her floods of tears, she hurried past the gauntlet of reporters asking her to articulate her very raw disappointment. Her Olympic record had been broken by Emmons, with a score of 503.5 points, and so had her heart.
It brought to mind Don Fox's last-minute conversion miss in the 1968 rugby league Challenge Cup final and Eddie Waring's instinctive expression of compassion. Up in the commentary box of China Central Television, one trusts there was a man behind the mike muttering the Mandarin for "Eeh, poor lass" – though not necessarily in a broad Yorkshire accent and while wrapped in a sheepskin coat.
To her credit, Emmons empathised with her broken rival. "I feel really bad for Du Li," she said, clutching her bouquet and gold medal. "Actually, I would like to give these flowers to her because she can shoot way better than she did today. I really can't imagine being in her shoes. It's easy to see the pressure she's under. The Chinese press are all around her, even in training."
To Du Li's credit, she later gained sufficient composure to face the press fleetingly. "I was not fully prepared for the pressure of competing at home," she confessed. She will be now, as she prepares to make amends in her secondary event, the three-position rifle. After the false start, the great Chinese gold rush has started. The great expectations can only get greater.