Chinese turn winning face to the world

Campaign: Beijing hopes a pile of medals and a new openness among its athletes will help change enough minds to win the right to play host to the 2008 Games.

September 27, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - They're acquiring medals and courting publicity.

They're giving high-fives at the table tennis venue, flashing big, bright smiles at the gymnastics arena and breaking down in sobs of joy at the weightlifting hall.

They're the Chinese athletes, on a competitive roll and a charm offensive at the Sydney Olympics.

Seven years after Beijing lost by two votes the battle to hold the 2000 Summer Olympics, China's athletes have come to Sydney to win medals and influence people.

With 50 overall medals, including 22 golds, China is third in the medal race behind the United States (62 total) and Russia (51) through the end of competition yesterday in Sydney.

But beyond the medal count, China is presenting an open and friendly face to the world.

Make no mistake: There's an agenda here, as Beijing is once again a candidate city to hold an Olympics, this time for 2008. The vote is set to take place next year, and the campaigning is in full swing.

At least one Olympic insider says there is a buzz about the Beijing bid, especially among the Games' corporate sponsors who are seeking to penetrate China's vast market.

China's last bid fell apart at the final stage because of concerns over the country's human rights policies.

This time, the country is putting forward its athletes as ambassadors, on and off the field.

Where once Chinese athletes gave carefully scripted answers to questions at stilted news conferences overseen by chaperones, they're now standing comfortably in the "mixed zone," talking with dozens of reporters.

Chinese athletes even managed to break away from the Games to pose for this week's cover of Time magazine's Asia edition.

A sign of the new China can be seen in gymnast Liu Xuan, the 21-year-old who closed her Olympic career with a last gold medal in the balance beam. After her triumph, she chatted for 45 minutes with reporters, flashing her dazzling smile and reveling in the attention.

"I don't think I'm making a lot of sacrifices," she said of more than a decade of hard training. "I'm representing a country and benefiting a lot from the collective effort."

In many ways, China's show in Sydney marks a stunningly quick turnaround.

Only nine days before the Games began, China dumped 27 drug-tainted athletes from its delegation as the International Olympic Committee was stepping up drug-testing procedures. At the time, it seemed China was getting tough on the cheaters while writing off its chances for a huge medal haul in Sydney.

The Australian wrote of "a desperate nation that had suddenly and successfully turned from poacher to gamekeeper - or in Beijing's case, Games winner."

During the 1990s, there was skepticism in the West as Chinese swimmers and distance runners rose to prominence.

A series of positive drug tests among some swimmers culminated with the 1998 scandal when breaststroke star Yuan Yuan was stopped by Australian customs officials and found to be in possession of human growth hormone.

So far, there have been no similar scandals to haunt the Chinese here.

But there has been plenty of joy.

"I think all the teams here are performing well," Liu said. "The Chinese team prepared well for all the difficulties we may have had to face. We're up to scratch at these Olympics."

China has bunched its medals here, claiming eight in shooting, four in badminton and four gold medals in women's weightlifting.

The country now boasts the "world's strongest woman," super heavyweight lifter Ding Meiyuan, who broke down and cried when she claimed her gold.

China also dominated one of its signature sports, table tennis, winning eight of 12 medals, including a final men's gold by Kong Linghui, who raced around the arena in a joyous victory lap he shared with the fans.

Kong is a descendant of Confucius. He cheers for the Chicago Bulls, likes Coca-Cola and lists among his most admired people American tennis star Pete Sampras.

"It's our training system," Kong said in explaining why the country dominates table tennis. "We concentrate the best players together, and we train according to different styles."

There are plenty of incentives for the athletes to perform well, according to China's People's Daily. Citing unconfirmed reports, the newspaper said medal winners are to receive $9,673 for a gold, $6,045 for a silver and $3,627 for a bronze. Sports federations, local governments and businesses will add bonuses.

Talk to the athletes, though, and they say they're performing for the people.

"I think this medal not only belongs to me, it belongs to China and to Hunan Province," gymnast Li Xiaopeng said after winning the gold medal in men's gymnastics parallel bars.

He said there is no secret to China's success at these Games.

"There is simply a lot of effort made," he said.

Beyond the boundaries of the playing field, there is a growing effort to boost the Beijing bid for the 2008 Games.

According to one media handout, the themes of the bid are: "Green Olympics, Humanism Olympics and Technology Olympics."

The city is investing in dozens of key projects to reduce pollution and improve the infrastructure.

To Li, the gymnast who hopes to compete in one more Olympics, a successful bid would bring untold benefits to the country and its athletes.

"It will make China take off," he said. "Particularly in sports."

Is there a chance that China will one day collect more Olympic medals than the United States?

"We need a long time before we can surpass America in medals," said Xiong Chen, an assistant gymnastics coach. "But I hope that one day we will be able to do that."

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