The symbolism of China's powerful emergence as an athletic nation was impossible to ignore. On the first full day of Olympic competition, Chen Xiexia, a 5-ft. (1.52 m) female weight lifter, heaved a barbell to the heavens and captured the host nation's first gold medal. Over the next four days, China's lifters won five more times. By Wednesday, the People's Republic already boasted 17 golds, seven more than the U.S. total.
With home-turf advantage in Beijing, China may finally snap America's hold on winning the most golds. But with the exception of gymnastics, in which China beat the U.S. in both the men's and women's team events, the two countries essentially compete in parallel Olympics. In the glamour events, it's no contest. The U.S. has dominated swimming and is expected to gorge on track medals. China, meanwhile, has churned out golds in weight-lifting, synchronized diving, shooting, fencing and judo. Not exactly prime-time viewing in the U.S., but a medal in the 10-m air pistol counts just as much as one in the 100-m dash. China's fans have rallied raucously for their homeland. Events like weight-lifting and shooting, which took place in half-empty stadiums at previous Games, have capacity crowds in Beijing.
China's golden harvest is no accident. In the 1990s, sports czars accelerated a "gold-medal strategy," which lavished state funds on sports with multiple gold-medal categories. China could sweep all nine golds in table tennis and badminton.
But is the People's Republic playing fair? The golden performance of its female gymnasts was dogged by accusations that China was illegally entering 14-year-olds in a competition reserved for athletes who will turn at least 16 during the Olympic year. For a nation anxious to prove its greatness, the pressure to win gold is extraordinary. On the eve of the Olympics, Huang Yubin, head coach of China's gymnastics squad, said he would "jump off the highest building" if his team won only one gold. By Wednesday, China had already nabbed two, so Huang didn't have to take up diving.
But the intense pressure is showing. In shooting, surely one of the Games' most mental disciplines, two Chinese marksmen favored for gold simply disintegrated and left the stadium weeping. "My craving for the gold was much more than last time," sobbed Zhu Qinan, the defending Olympic champ in the 10-m air rifle. "I fought hard with my inner self, but it was really hard."