WITH LESS THAN two years before the Olympics, Chinese gymnasts have given a hint of what the world might be in for when Beijing hosts the 2008 Games. At the world championships in Aarhus, Denmark, China won eight of 14 gold medals, including both team titles. China's men entered as the favorites, but the women had never won a world or an Olympic team title and were considered underdogs against perhaps the strongest, most balanced U.S. team ever. (The U.S., which led all teams with nine medals at the 2005 worlds, won five silver medals and a bronze but left Denmark without a gold.) "This is the best result for us in the history of gymnastics," said Yang Wei (above), who won three golds, including the men's all-around title, "but I wouldn't say I'm surprised."
Indeed, the signs are there that the Chinese athletic machine is in fine working order. Since finishing third with 63 medals at the 2004 Olympics, behind the U.S. (102) and Russia (92), China has spent millions in an effort to be the best in the world. The Chinese have imported coaches such as former Los Angeles Lakers coach Del Harris, who ran the Chinese national team, and are courting Romanian gymnastics guru Octavian Belu, whose teams won five world and two Olympic titles. The government is offering rewards such as cash (hundreds of thousands of dollars per medal), houses and cars for athletes who win gold in Beijing.
Last year China signed a deal with the Russian Olympic Committee in which the nations, in what they acknowledged as an effort to dethrone the U.S. as the world's sports superpower, agreed to exchange coaches, training techniques and even information on medical treatments. After fielding competitors in only half of the approximately 300 events at the 2004 Games, China expects to compete in every event in '08. Says USOC CEO Jim Scherr, "We have to be prepared for just how strong they're going to be."
The world swimming championships in Melbourne next March and the track and field worlds in Osaka, Japan, five months later, should further demonstrate how much the Chinese have improved. But for now, their startling gymnastics success suggests their Olympic plans are on target. "The Chinese people have a passion for the Games," said women's coach Lu Shanzhen last week. "There has been a great movement to push gymnastics in our country. There are great expectations and hopes."