Open Mic: Can Phelps And Co Beat the Home Team in Beijing?

Alex GuestContributor IAugust 14, 2008

A week into the Olympics and China is riding high, with a comfortable lead over the United States in the gold medal tally.

What stands out for the disinterested British observer is the way in which the two nations have gone about getting their medals.

The US has benefited immensely from a small number of athletes in a discipline in which the Americans are traditionally strong—swimming.

Michael Phelps has been enormous, contributing six gold medals through both individual and team events. Ryan Lochte has also produced two golds.

Special mention should also go to Natalie Coughlin, whose single gold belies her strength in achieving five medals in total.

Americans, it seems to us, have always loved their heroes. The culture is built on lavishing praise on a small number of great men and women. The presidential race as much as the silver screen are testament to it.

The English also like to pump up their stars, but only so that we can knock them down again when they seem too big.

The Chinese have very deliberately followed a different approach. Ever since Sydney, China has put in place an operation to produce gold medalists in the "minor" events, where competition is less intense. Wei Yang is the only double gold medalist for China and one of those was in a team event.

In short, China has created far more gold medalists than the Americans.

So, is there any comparison to be made with the new geopolitical order?

While the US continues to be a very important power in the world, its waning influence can be seen in the way it relies increasingly on military conflict in a shrinking number of stages.

Meanwhile, China’s hegemony is growing through clever economic ties with smaller nations and avoiding conflict as much as possible. Note the recent Chinese refusal to agree on sanctions against Zimbabwe at the UN Security Council.

As each day passes, it becomes more likely that the US will lose these Olympics to China. It is likely to spark off a lot of soul-searching, which coincides with a period of economic distress.

Meanwhile, the Chinese will need to avoid the usual post-Olympics hangover, in which massive investment cripples the longer-term prospects of the economy.

The whole world, which is beginning to feel the might of the waking Chinese dragon, will sit up and pay attention to how far this country has come in 20 years.