Despite the combined efforts of Steven Spielberg, the Dalai Lama, Muslim separatists, Western human-rights campaigners, and green activists, the Beijing Olympics are going to happen. At 08:08:08 on Aug. 8, 2008, China’s Communist top brass will be crammed into Beijing’s “bird’s nest” stadium for the start of the Games. Don’t be surprised to see them glancing anxiously at the sky. Their greatest fear is that at that moment—one of the most auspicious in modern Chinese history—the heavens will open and wash out the opening ceremony.

Meteorologists say there is a 50 percent chance of a downpour over the $440-million open-air stadium. To reduce the risk, officials have poured money into “cloud seeding,” a process whereby thousands of silver iodate pellets are blasted into threatening clouds days before the Games begin in order to induce rain. This (far from reliable) “weather modification” project shows just how determined China is to ensure that the Games of the XXIX Olympiad are a success.

But aside from keeping Hu Jintao, the country’s paramount leader, dry during the opening celebrations, how will China measure success? In public, Chinese politicians blabber about bringing the world’s nations together through sport, promoting respect, harmony, and friendship. Forget about that. For China, success means one thing: knocking the United States off the top of the medal stand. The 2008 Olympics is not merely a sporting event. It is, as sportswriter Tim Noonan put it, “the coming out party of the Chinese empire,” a chance for China to put the world on notice of its coming supremacy in global affairs.

Don’t imagine that the humiliations of the past few months have dimmed China’s dreams of Olympic glory. First, there were the boycott calls. Then in February, Spielberg resigned as Olympic artistic adviser over China’s complicity in Darfur. This was followed in March by the bloody Tibetan uprising, unrest in the Muslim-majority region of Xianjing, and the disruption of the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Athens. That quivering flame is still making its perilous journey across Europe, America, India, and Tibet before arriving in Beijing on Aug. 6. Protesters might not realize, however, that these setbacks only sharpen China’s desire to silence critics with a crushing victory at the Games.

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Until recently, the idea of China winning an Olympics was laughable. Before the Communists took power in 1949, Chinese athletes took part in three Olympics and won nothing. When Mao Zedong unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Party banned competitive sports. Top-flight sportsmen were denounced publicly for jinbiao zhuyi, or “trophy mania.” Ping pong champion Rong Guotuan was held on a false spying charge and hanged himself in jail. China remained in sporting isolation until the end of the 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping decided to promote not only economic but also athletic competition. China finally returned to the Games in 1980 at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The country had to wait until 1984 for its first gold. Yet only 20 years later, at the 2004 Games in Athens, it came second only to the United States.

How did China reverse its sporting fortunes so dramatically? The driving engine was politics, more specifically nationalism, which, rather than Communism, is the regime’s defining ideology. The Beijing Games offer the Communist Party an unrivalled opportunity to boost its legitimacy by achieving a unifying, morale-boosting victory in the world’s greatest sporting competition.

After Beijing was awarded the Games in 2001, Communist officials developed their own case of “trophy mania.” They swiftly conceived the “119 Project,” a campaign to top the Summer Games’ medal stand in 2008. The project focuses on three major event categories: track and field, swimming, and other water sports. The apparently random figure of 119 was in fact precisely calculated: it marked the number of medals needed in these events to take China to Olympic victory. The three disciplines, which comprise roughly a third of the competition, have never been among China’s strongest. Can you name a Chinese sprinter? I didn’t think so.

Determined to move China far beyond its traditional areas of dominance—badminton, table tennis, and gymnastics—officials looked at the figures. China has 1.25 billion people, a fifth of the planet’s population. Somewhere among them there must be a potentially world-class canoeist, marathon runner, and freestyle swimmer. How do you find them? Go around to schools with a measuring tape and pack off any child with the appropriate dimensions—sometimes determined with the help of X-rays—for intensive sports training.

This was the system that discovered Yao Ming, the tallest player in the NBA and a regular starter in the annual All-Star Game. The Houston Rockets center was born in Shanghai in 1980 to two retired basketball players who were then the tallest couple in China. City officials had encouraged Yao’s parents to get married in the hope that they would produce a sporting giant. They were not disappointed: Yao was nearly double the size of the average Chinese newborn. When he was 13, and already over 6’5”, he moved out of home and into the Shanghai Sports Technology Institute. For the next eight years, his parents hardly saw him as he was moulded into the basketball superstar in the size 18 sneakers that we know today. Despite injuring his foot this season, Yao is expected to play for China at the Olympics.

Liu Xiang, a slim 24-year-old with a boyish face, is another outstanding product of the system. The only child of a truck driver and a waitress, in the fourth grade Liu was selected and placed in a sports school, where he excelled at high jump. At 15, he met a hurdle coach who persuaded him to switch events. In 2004, he won gold at Athens in the 110m hurdles, with a world-record-equalling time of 12.91 seconds. “I believe I achieved a modest miracle for the yellow-skinned Chinese people and the Asian people,” he said afterwards. His politically incorrect observation highlighted a point that is often glossed over: China’s push for medals has a distinct racial undertone, as if the country were determined to prove that the “yellow-skinned” man is the physical equal of his black and white rivals.

Officials are aware, of course, that the tape measure is a crude guide to future athletic prowess. One of China’s top gold-medal prospects, the boxer Zou Shiming, was at first rejected because coaches were only interested in children whose wingspan exceeded their stature by three centimeters. Zou’s outstretched arms were a good centimeter less than his height when he was a boy. But Liang Feng, a boxing trainer, saw Zou in the gym and was impressed by his footwork and uncommon willingness to absorb pain. Liang recommended him for the provincial team, fully aware that Zou did not measure up. “If I didn’t hide that, it would be over,” the coach recalled in a recent New Yorker profile. Today, Zou is the world’s leading amateur light flyweight. His nicknames—the Fox, the Pirate, the Knight of Lightning—testify to his ability to tag opponents while leaving them swatting thin air.

Although China is famous for the Boxer Rebellion, it has no native boxing tradition. The sport flourished briefly in the port cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou in the 1920s, when it was known as “western boxing.” The prizefighters were often foreign sailors taking on local toughs. In 1953, a boxer died after a bout in a competition in the northern city of Tianjin, and the Communist authorities banned the sport from China’s first national games in 1959. According to Fan Hong, an expert on Chinese sporting history, “people believed that boxing was very brutal, very ruthless, and those were said to be the characteristics of capitalism.”

Interestingly, when the authorities dropped their opposition to the brutal and ruthless realities of capitalism, boxing flourished again. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping launched sweeping market-oriented reforms and a year later received Muhammad Ali, a goodwill ambassador for boxing, at his heavily fortified compound. Chinese boxers returned to the ring in the 1980s, but at international amateur tournaments were regarded as little more than punching bags in red vests. That is, before Zou donned the national colors.

Zou became the first Chinese boxer to win an Olympic medal in 2004, when he took bronze. Four years later, he will accept nothing less than gold. His preparations are testing his fabled resistance to pain. Recently he wrote on his blog: “Often, when I sleep, my legs don’t know where to go. No matter how I lie, I can’t sleep comfortably. Worst of all, in a flash, the whistle blows and it’s time to get out of bed again to train.” He suffers agonizing foot and back pain, but there is no time for surgery before the Olympics. “After endurance runs, I lie on the ground, and I can’t tell the tears from the sweat,” he told one reporter poetically. But this private vulnerability was nowhere to be seen at last year’s AIBA World Champion-ships in Chicago. Zou won with ease, and most observers think he has China’s first Olympic boxing gold in the bag.

Like Zou, China’s Olympic team as a whole projects an aura of invincibility that intimidates rivals. The official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, captured the national mood when it ran a story last Christmas that began, “China is widely expected to beat the United States and Russia to top the medal standings of the 2008 Olympic Games,” before reeling off a long list of gold-medal prospects. The British Olympic Association has predicted that China will win in Beijing with 48 golds (16 more than in Athens), followed by the United States with 37 and Russia with 32. Last year, Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, appeared to agree with that assessment. “It’s no secret that we’re underdogs,” he said. “They’re blowing us out of the water in the gold medal race.”

When China’s main Olympic opponents look back to Athens, they feel a twinge of fear. At the 2004 Games, the average age of Chinese athletes was a strikingly low 23.3. In other words, China decided to drop seasoned athletes in favor of younger competitors who gained valuable Olympic experience in Greece but are destined to reach their peak in Beijing. Add to this the fact that in Athens, China played to its traditional strengths: 21 of its 32 golds came in badminton, diving, shooting, table tennis, and weightlifting. If the 119 Project succeeds in Beijing, China can expect to add to this haul a clutch of golds on the track and in the pool.

And yet curiously, as China’s rivals prepare mentally for defeat, confidence is waning among the very officials who designed China’s pitch for Olympic supremacy. Cui Dalin, China’s deputy minister of sport and vice chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee, recently hinted that the 119 Project might not fulfill expectations. “We have been backward in these sports for a long time, and our training methods and levels are undeveloped,” Cui said. “We have put in the effort but have not made big improvements. Another problem is that we have already bought out full potential in such advantageous events as diving, table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, shooting and weightlifting in Athens. There is little room to improve on the results in Beijing.”

Perhaps Cui was simply trying to manage his countrymen’s soaring expectations. Yet China does have cause for concern. The British Olympic Association’s projection of 48 golds in Beijing was based on results from international competitions in 2006. But in 2007, China’s performance in the 119 Project events took a nosedive. At the World Championships in Athletics in Osaka, China won just one gold (Liu Xiang in the hurdles), leaving it tied for 11th place overall with Cuba and Belarus. And at the World Aquatics Championships in Melbourne, China recorded its worst performance in 15 years: it won just 16 medals, while the U.S. took 40. If China’s athletes perform no better in August, the host country faces humiliation.

In the build-up to Beijing, Chinese officials seem to have underestimated America’s enduring strength in Olympic competition. The U.S. has dominated the modern Games: since 1896, it has won 2,194 medals—more than double the total of its closest rival, Russia. Moreover, America is bringing its biggest Olympic team ever to this year’s Games. And yet many in U.S. Olympic circles are convinced that their adversary is hoarding a secret weapon. Jill Geer, director of communications at USA Track & Field, recently struck an ominous note. “The world needs to be prepared for China to come out with athletes we’ve never seen before, with performances that we’ve not seen before,” she said. In other words, somewhere in the vastness of China there may be a training camp where drug-enhanced monstrosities run the 100m in under nine seconds and throw the javelin clean out of the stadium.

There have long been suspicions that China, in common with the former Communist sporting powers of the Soviet Union and the GDR, runs a huge covert doping operation. In the 1990s, this was almost certainly true. Numerous leading Chinese athletes were thrown out of international competitions after failing drug tests. As recently as 2005, the world half-marathon champion, Sun Yingjie, tested positive for the testosterone derivative androsterone and received a two-year ban. But with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, the government launched a massive crackdown on doping. In 2006, Chinese authorities raided a sports school in northeastern China. According to Xinhua, “Officials caught school staff injecting teenage students with banned substances and confiscated illegal drugs including erythropoietin (EPO) and testosterone.” School staff faced criminal charges under a draconian new anti-doping code.

Another theory is that China forced its athletes to put the brakes on in international competition in 2007 to lull the U.S. into a false sense of security. So when Cui Dalin publicly doubted China’s chances, he wasn’t being frank but devilishly cunning. This suggestion has the typical disadvantage of conspiracy theories: there is no proof. Common sense suggests that ultra-competitive elite athletes are unlikely to hold back on the world stage.

The simplest explanation is that China has drastically overestimated its chances of winning the 2008 Olympics. Having spent most of the new millennium talking up the country’s chances, the authorities are starting to play them down. But it’s too late. The Chinese public expects nothing less than victory, and if the host nation fails to top the medal count, China’s aspirations to international hegemony will take a big hit.

Over the past 25 years, China has achieved the most dramatic sporting transformation of any nation in history. It has gone from Olympic minnow to whale shark. But the evidence suggests it has still not done enough to defeat the world’s only sporting superpower.

It may yet rain on China’s parade.
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Luke Coppen is editor of London’s Catholic Herald.