Granted, there are 630 million of them. But practically everywhere you looked during these Beijing Games, there was another Chinese woman with a gold medal slung around her neck. By the end of the 12th day of the Games, China's female Olympians had captured 25 of the country's 45 golds, just one less than the entire American team had garnered. (By contrast, U.S. women had won only 42% of their homeland's golds.)
China's women have the legacy of Karl Marx to thank for their performance. Chairman Mao liked to say that "women hold up half the sky," and when the country revved up its state-sponsored project in the 1990s to cultivate athletes, women were given more than equal treatment. Strategically focusing on women's sports because they are underfunded in most other nations, China's sports ministry poured millions of dollars into developing everything from female marksmen to wrestlers. "Chinese girls are willing to work harder and eat more bitterness than the boys," says Dong Jianqing, a judo coach at the Qingdao Sports School in eastern China, one of the country's top athletic academies. Dong should know about girls' ability to "eat bitterness," a Chinese phrase that describes a capacity to withstand suffering. He mentored several female judoka who went on to win Olympic medals.
In Beijing, China's women have struck gold in more than a dozen disciplines, from weightlifting and gymnastics to first-ever wins in archery and sailing. The nation's females were even victorious in rowing's quadruple sculls, an event that China's sports czars began targeting seriously just a few years ago. The same goes for beach volleyball, in which the country's women placed ninth in Athens. This time around, China's red-bikini-clad sand spikers were guaranteed either gold or silver in the Aug. 21 final against the U.S.
China isn't the only communist country to have counted on its women. Think of East bloc athletes such as gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut. But their male counterparts? They just didn't measure up in terms of Olympic glory. Even North Korea holds to the rule: Both of its golds in Beijing have come courtesy of female Olympians.
The power of the X chromosome doesn't extend to other areas of Chinese society. With the relaxation of a government quota system, the number of women in the civil service has plummeted. A traditional preference for boys over girls has led to widespread sex-based abortions, leaving China with one of the world's most lopsided gender ratios. In 2005, 118 Chinese boys were born for every 100 girls. That means fewer brides for a surplus of Chinese men in coming decades not to mention a dearth of future female Olympians.