Americans love being the underdog.
It took the Soviets launching Sputnik to re-popularize science in the U.S. and help catapult NASA to the moon, and rising from the Depression (that Hitler said would lead us into anarchy) to take a leading place in the world gave Americans special pride.
But it takes a strong competitor to create a compelling underdog story.
Of Michael Phelp's races, which was the most compelling? Not (for me anyway) the races that Phelps completely dominated. The relay in which a strong but lesser-known swimmer chased down the arrogant Frenchman captured the essence of competition far more.
Of course, the U.S. came from behind in that race. It was the only way it could have been scripted.
For some people at least, it's hard to hate the Chinese athletes. Would many of them dope (as most of them assuredly are) if they weren't told to by the authorities? Their athletes may come off as somewhat robotic, especially in precision sports, but much of the time, as other people have pointed out, it seems like they're relieved to win, because the government expected them to.
That's why (for me at least), unless the U.S. is in direct competition with them for a medal, it's tough to root hard against the Chinese. They don't talk trash, they don't celebrate excessively, they just go about their business. They may not be allowed to express opinions as freely as Kobe or LeBron, especially on an Olympic-sized stage, but that doesn't make them easy to hate.
The Chinese have formidable teams in many sports, and the breadth of their athletic programs are widening. A Chinese hurdler would have never been considered a gold medal contender ten years ago. But they are still far behind in what many Americans consider "marquee" events.
Americans don't really care about synchronized diving, partly because we aren't very good at it. Conversely, for cultural and other reasons, the Chinese like watching precision events, such as Table Tennis, and have made an effort to succeed in those sports, just as Latin America likes baseball.
The sports that China excels at are the sports that the U.S. can have its "Rocky" moments. Crushing them in Beach Volleyball says nothing about the American athletic spirit. Beating a Chinese team in Table Tennis would stun Beijing, and might be bigger news there than Phelps winning eight golds.
The cheering for the U.S. basketball team, even as they were beating China's team, was not a fake-cheerleader thunderstick serenade. The two countries have used sport as uniting force before, and China in 2008 is much different from the China in the 1970's.
Unlike the Cold War, there is much more cultural exchange between the US and China than with previous regimes. The US and China haven't fought each other since the 1950's. In fact, as Russia's recent actions have indicated, China may not be the biggest antagonist of the U.S. As more Americans invest in China, and more Chinese emigrate to the US, the two countries will become more and more interlinked.
Economic connections don't guarantee friendly relations. There's a McDonalds in Red Square and this has done nothing to calm the tensions over South Ossetia. But sports can make the Chinese more interested in American culture. Fans with T-Mac and Kobe jerseys now walk past the iconic Chairman Mao portrait. Cultural Revolution, indeed.
There is palpable tension between the foreign journalists and the Chinese government, but this underscores the problems that China is facing, rather than making the Chinese athletes (who are mostly pawns for the government) more hate-able. This is a definitely a conflict, and it's necessary to expose the lies of the regime, especially in regards to Tibet and Darfur.
But in this sense, the Olympics are less a proxy war between the U.S. and China as they are an externalization of the struggle within China for human rights.
As an American, I want the U.S. to win as much as it can, especially over the host country. But I think it's equally important that American individuals pull upsets or set personal bests. After all, what better way to show the Chinese people the power of the individual?
Either that or screen Rocky IV in the Olympic Village.