Cold Warriors

Waking up echoes of a bygone era, China and Russia have made a pact to ensure that the U.S. doesn't win the most medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
July 03, 2005

Apparently the 2008 Beijing Games will feature a third wrestling discipline: joining freestyle and Greco-Roman will be tag team. Without so much as a tsk-tsk from the International Olympic Committee, China and Russia announced that they are ganging up on the United States in an effort to end American hegemony in the medals table.

The alliance was forged by Leonid Tyagachev, Russian Olympic Committee president, and his Chinese counterpart, Liu Peng. According to their written agreement, China and Russia will share training and coaching expertise--and even traditional medicines. (In the 1990s Chinese coach Ma Junren put his world-record-setting distance runners on turtle blood tonics and caterpillar fungus. Unfortunately they apparently were washing that down with EPO chasers, which forced all but one of Ma's athletes off the 2000 Olympic team.)

In one sense this is nothing new. China already had deals to share information with Egypt and Australia; Russia has agreements with the Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Laos; and according to the United States Olympic Committee, the U.S. has pacts of athletic cooperation with perhaps a dozen or so nations. In the current context of world sport, a marriage between China and Russia makes sense. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has had expertise but not much money. China has money but still must import coaches, as it did for the 2004 Olympics in Athens--for which they brought in Americans Del Harris (men's basketball) and Treshan McDonald (softball).

No, this is the offensive part: Russia and China have agreed, in effect, to divvy up sports for pretty much the sole purpose of dethroning the U.S., which has led the medal count in the past three Summer Games. As Tyagachev told the daily Izvestia, "[The Chinese] hope that we will take some of the medals in sports that are traditionally considered American--swimming and track and field. They speak openly about it: 'We cannot give in to the U.S.'" And in case that is not unsportsmanlike enough for you, Beijing crowds will be coached to cheer for Russian athletes over U.S. competitors should there be no Chinese in an event.

In other words, institutional anti-Americanism.

So far the USOC, attuned to the realpolitik of international sport, has basically shrugged at the alliance. USOC chief executive Jim Scherr told SI last Friday that he found it "a little bit curious" that the Russians and Chinese would work opposite sides of the street to give the Americans a comeuppance, but he is hardly miffed. "One core element of the Olympic ideal is fair play, friendship," Scherr said. "Whether this crosses that line, I don't know. Any agreement that would include helping the other nation qualify athletes for the Olympics--'We'll abdicate this [qualifying] event if you abdicate that'--probably does. But another core element is striving for perfection, trying to win. Clearly China's doing what it can."

That measured response is based, in part, on the belief that competition--even a little two-on-one--can only inspire American athletes, who now have some fresh bulletin-board material. The pact also returns to the Olympics the kind of us-versus-them political intrigue that made the Miracle on Ice so compelling. If nothing else, renewing cold war tensions might make for good television.

Naturally, every nation tunes up its sports machine before playing host to an Olympics. Australia won 58 medals in Sydney in 2000, up 17 from its total in Atlanta, and Greece's full-court press for 2004 upped its haul. China finished second to the U.S. in Athens in golds, 35--32, but had only 63 medals overall, lapped by the Americans' 103. Now China--which Tyagachev says is promising to give $300,000, land, an apartment and a car for a gold medal--wants 40 golds and 110 medals in Beijing, a raising of the bar to such Olympian heights that Russia has been brought in to spot.

Not all Russian sportsmen are delighted to be handmaidens for a former rival--especially one that finished on their heels in the medals table in Athens. (Russia was second overall with 92 medals but had five fewer golds than China.) Russian sports minister Slava Fetisov, the former hockey great, ripped the deal when he told journalists in Moscow on June 20, "How can we possibly ally with somebody against somebody else? Explain to me, is that some kind of new rules? Are we already taking the third spot by preparing the Chinese for successful performance? No matter from what side I look at it, I don't see any logic."

Citius, Altius, Ludicrous. ■

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