Offside, 3 September

Forget Britain's golds - China was the big story of the Olympic medal table.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What do you get if you run a Google news search on the words ‘Olympic’ and ‘medals’?

No, it’s not a joke; I’m serious. I’ll give you a clue. The answer isn’t Paula Radcliffe…for obvious reasons. But nor is it Kelly Holmes or Matthew Pinsent or that horsey toff who won the equestrian gold. Sadly, the world doesn’t care much about Team GB’s medal haul. Why? Because Britain’s medal tally was not particularly remarkable. The big story at this year’s Olympics was China, whose medal haul of 32 gold, 17 silver and 14 bronze was bettered only by the USA.

Paula’s tears or Kelly’s wide-eyed disbelief are destined to become the iconic Olympic images in Britain. But the defining moment for me was China’s Liu Xiang equalling the world record in the 110-metre hurdles final. Liu’s victory was not as jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring as Ben Johnson leaving Carl Lewis trailing in his wake in 1988 (before the failed dope test), or Michael Johnson demolishing the 200 metres world record in Atlanta. But it had huge symbolic significance. It announced that China had arrived on the international athletics stage. No longer just a nation of ping-pong players, the Chinese were now genuine contenders in proper Olympic sports. As well as two athletics gold medals, Chinese competitors won medals in swimming, boxing, cycling and weightlifting.

China’s success is even more amazing when you consider that the most populous country on the planet only won its first Olympic gold medal 20 years ago. But since then China has been shooting up the medal rankings, finishing fourth in Atlanta, third in Sydney 2000, and now second in Athens.

Will China, with 17,000 athletes in its elite training programme, knock the USA off the winner’s podium at Beijing in four years’ time? It will be fascinating to assess its progress, but talk of China’s world domination is somewhat premature. China’s medals were predominantly won in sports which, as the esteemed editor of this website would no doubt argue, are minority sports. As you would expect there are plenty of medals in girly racquet sports (11 medals in badminton and table tennis). Lots too in diving, gymnastics, and trampoline (13 medals) – more performance arts than sports.

If you look solely at the athletics medal count it is clear that the USA still dominates in the blue ribband Olympic events, with 25 track-and-field medals, followed closely by Russia with 20 medals. There is a huge gulf between the two Cold War superpowers and the rest. Ethiopia and Kenya have seven medals apiece, reflecting the dominance of the east Africans in middle- and long-distance running.

Britain’s tally of four track-and-field medals is respectable but no more than that. Kelly Holmes’ middle-distance double and the rather fortuitous triumph of the men’s 4×100 metres relay team masked an otherwise mediocre performance by British athletes. ‘There were far too many athletes not getting through the first rounds and being eliminated in early heats’, admitted British Olympic Association chief Simon Clegg.

It was just as well that British athletes did win some gongs in Athens because otherwise we’d still be kidding ourselves that synchronised diving is a proper sport (whereas it’s actually a marketing ploy designed to attract a gay audience to the Olympics). Just as well too that there aren’t many rowing and sailing clubs or cycle velodromes in Kenya and Ethiopia or the Brits would be in big trouble.

The biggest underachievers in Athens, however, were the Germans. Although sixth overall in the medal table, Germany won only two athletics medals and failed to land a single gold in track-and-field. Germany’s tally of 48 medals pales in comparison to Seoul 1988 where West Germany won 50 medals and the German Democratic Republic won 102 (though admittedly some were won by hermaphrodite steroid mutants). The end of the Cold War brought short-term dividends for the newly reunified Germany, which won 82 medals including 33 golds at the 1992 Barcelona games.

However, reunification appears to have yielded no long-term sporting benefits. This year Germany won fewer gold medals than Japan, another emerging force, whose total of 37 medals constituted its best ever Olympic medal return. And snapping at their heels was South Korea, which bagged 30 medals.

The emerging Asian powers have some way to go to match the USA and Russia in track-and-field, but the balance of power is starting to swing towards the Pacific Rim. If they maintain their rapid progress we can expect more south-east Asian athletics success at Beijing. And where would that leave Great Britain? World champions at plucky failure and public weeping, I guess.

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