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China Jolly but Calm at All-Time Best Gold Haul
    2008-08-23 04:14:05     Xinhua
By Sportswriter Zhou Yan

Two days before the Beijing Olympics close, the host nation has secured a top position on the medal tally with 47 golds, an all-time best gold harvest for China.

The result is apparently applauded by the Chinese public, who take it as evidence of a stronger China.

"A country's prosperity or recession is always seen in its sports," said Prof. Liu Hongtu with Dalian University of Technology in the northeastern Liaoning Province.

When Liu's father, sprinter Liu Changchun, represented China to make an Olympic debut in Los Angeles in 1932, he felt lonely and even scared. "My father later told me that if China could send a bigger team to the Games some day, its athletes would feel stronger."

The professor said his father was eliminated in the first rounds of the 100-meter and 200-meter races, but was considered a hero at home. "He was the Liu Xiang of his time. Reporters and fans followed him and crowds of people watched when he trained on the playground."

Senior Liu died in 1983 at 74.

"I knew all the while he had wanted to be at the Los Angeles Games again in 1984, though he never told anyone about it," Prof. Liu said on his online journal published at sina.com. "After he died, I was told his name had actually been included in the list of spectators to the Games."

Liu Changchun would have felt so much better had he been there to see Chinese athletes ranking fourth on the medal tally with 15 golds, eight silvers and nine bronzes.

At Seoul in 1988 China won five golds. But its gold tally has kept snowballing and China took second place on the medal count after the United States with 32 golds four years ago in Athens.

Four years back, it was hard for any Chinese to predict their athletes could play so well and take so many golds in Beijing.

Actually until the eve of the Beijing Games, the Chinese delegation still had no prediction as to how many medals they were prepared to take on home soil.

"We have never set a medal target," said Cui Dalin, deputy chef de mission on Aug. 7. "But our athletes prepared well in all events. They've trained very hard and made progress... As long as our athletes manage to do their best, even if they lose, I think our people can understand."

China's medal haul began on the first day of the competitions, with a maximum of eight golds on Aug. 17. By Friday, there has not been a goldless day.

"It's evidence enough China is on its way toward a superpower in sports," said Bai Yansong, one of China's best known news anchormen with the Chinese Central Television.

If the host country finally ends up at the top of the gold count, Bai said, it would probably be the Chinese people's "last carnival" over gold. "From the next Games on, the Chinese will care less for the number of golds, and more TV viewers will watch the more popular sports even if Chinese players have the slim chance for a medal there."

Since China's stunning eight-gold sweep on Aug. 17, people have been discussing whether the number of golds really proves a country's overall sports prowess. Such discussions have been thriving on the Internet, offices and over dinner tables, and the conclusion is almost unanimous -- no.

While China apparently needs to sharpen its competitive edge in swimming, athletics and all the three "big ball" games, a more demanding job for its sports administration, however, is to popularize sports among the general public.

Despite China's two-digit economic growth in recent years, it still has too few swimming pools, gyms and playgrounds for the 1.3 billion people, about one fifth of the world's total.

Nowadays a growing number of young office workers in big cities choose to work up a sweat at fitness centers, doing yoga, weightlifting, boxing or simply dancing to their own rhythms.

Traditional sports such as table tennis and badminton are often reserved for weekends because reservations have to be made in advance at indoor stadiums, whose resources are very limited even for the city people.

The 800 million Chinese peasants have even less access to sports facilities. For generations, many people take it for granted that toiling in the field is equivalent to working out.

When the city kids learn roller-skating and swimming at school or clubs, many rural children just amuse themselves by swimming in rivers, playing ping pong on cement tables with home-made wooden paddles, or simply competing who is stronger.

Only the few lucky ones have opportunities for professional training, sometimes toward world championships.

Teen prodigy Long Qingquan, who took gold in the men's 56 kg weightlifting at the Beijing Games, was an example.

Born in a mountain village of central Hunan Province, Long began helping his father in the field at six. "He was a strong boy and could even turn a tractor around at the end of a narrow lane," said his father Long Guangwu. Long started training as a weightlifter at nine.

Yet sports do not just belong to the prodigies. As many Chinese children work seven days a week hitting the book, learning extra skills ranging from piano and English to Olympic mathematics, the health of the new generation is at stake -- national health surveys in recent years have found higher incidences of shortsightedness, obesity and even diabetes among children.

"My daughter is a third-grader at the same primary school where I studied as a child," said Huo Yujie, a government employee in Beijing. "But the cement table tennis tables are gone and the small campus is crowded with extra buildings. Today's children play no more rope jumping or hide-and-seek, they are reluctant to leave their classroom during the breaks."

Huo is one of a growing number of Chinese parents who have decided exercise is good for their children after all. "My daughter plays ping pong every Saturday with her coach. I hope it's good for her eyesight -- she began wearing lens at six."
 
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