Hot Rivalry: The U.S.-China Gold-Medal Rush

From its inception, Beijing 2008 was ballyhooed as a nation's coming-out party, one that would presage the Chinese Century. But you don't get your very own century without first establishing supremacy in international sports. Four years ago in Athens, China finished a surprising second in Olympic gold medals, ahead of Russia and just four behind the United States. If subsequent world titles are any indication, we might look back on Beijing 2008 as the moment when China surged past the United States in the gold-medal count for the first time—and never looked back.

Ever since these Games were awarded to Beijing back in 2001, China has invested billions in sports development. The centerpiece has been an effort called Project 119, which targeted multiple-medal sports—swimming, track and field, rowing and canoeing—in which China has traditionally lagged. (The number 119 represented the total gold medals initially up for grabs in the targeted sports; in Beijing, those sports will actually award 122 golds, with 88 in swimming and track and field alone.) Project 119 helped open up, at least by Chinese standards, what had been a very closed system. Teams competed more frequently outside China, and its sports establishment invited foreign coaches who had expertise that was lacking at home. Still, the real payoff might not show up until 2012, or even 2016.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the hype machine from billing the United States vs. China as the Olympics' hot new rivalry. The truth, though, is that it's a rivalry in numbers only. The U.S. vs. the Soviet Union—now that was a rivalry. Every contest was life or death; every victory on the field was cast as a triumph in a global ideological struggle. The United States and China is an engagement between trading partners. And there's a serious obstacle to raising the stakes any higher: with a few crucial exceptions (gymnastics, for instance) the two nations shine in wildly different sports. The Chinese excel at table tennis, badminton, women's judo and women's weightlifting, to name a few—events that most Americans don't give a hoot about. Is the U.S. vs. China a serious rivalry? Sure, but it's a rivalry that'll be contested primarily on an abacus, not in a sports arena.