When the People's Republic of China decided to make its summer Olympics debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, nobody was more relieved than the Americans.

Having led a boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the Americans were staring down the barrel of a huge tit-for-tat riposte from the Communist Bloc.

But by going to California, the Chinese spiked the Soviet guns, saved the Games as a contest and ensured its financial success. For Peter Ueberroth, the chairman of LA's organising committee, it was even simpler than that: China had rescued the Olympics.

Now, six Games later, the Chinese want their reward and staging the Games is not enough, they want to win.

The Olympic torch relay passes through Nanjing, China, on 27 May

Medal table triumph as metaphor for economic, military and political muscle seems a very Cold War concept but it appears nobody has told the hosts; or the Americans, for that matter.

Having finally seen off the Soviet Union and East Germany (the USSR and its team of "shamateurs" won six of the nine summer Olympics it contested), the US was looking forward to a lengthy spell on top.

The margin of America's advantage at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta seemed to scream, "Get stuffed Stalin, we've won!"

Well, they had. The world's only remaining superpower, the US was citius, altius, fortius than anybody else and intended to stay that way. China, however, had other plans.

That first Chinese team in 1984 won 32 medals, 15 gold. It was a good haul for a bunch of novices from a country that didn't get out much. But then there were lots of good hauls that year, thanks to the Soviet no-show. The Americans won 83 gold medals.

China found the going tougher in 1988 - just five golds, the same as Britain - but was back on LA form in 1992 and 1996, winning 16 golds both times.

Still, there was nothing here to worry mighty America with its 44 golds in Atlanta, was there?

Perhaps not...or perhaps not yet, because come the new millennium it was clear a (not-so) new power was awakening in the East. The Sydney Games saw China jump to 28 golds, only 10 fewer than the US.

Four years later in Athens, and China, for whom anything other than gold is defeat, was breathing down Uncle Sam's neck in second place with just four fewer gold medals.

China's volleyball team celebrates Olympic gold in Athens

It is small wonder that one forecaster, Professor Simon Shibli from Sheffield Hallam University, has the hosts streaking past the Yanks in Beijing.

He's not alone. Another forecast, this time from bean counters PricewaterhouseCoopers, predicted the Chinese would pip the Americans in the overall medal count 88 to 87 - the US had a 39-medal advantage in Athens.

So how have they done it?

Well, for something so unprecedented, it's actually quite simple. It's what Peter Cook's football manager Alan Latchley might have described as the "three Ms": motivation, money and millions.

The motivation comes from a mixture of patriotism (which is hardly unique to China), financial incentives from the state (again, not an exclusively Chinese phenomenon) and a desire for vindication on the world stage.

Face, or how you save it, is a big thing in China, perhaps the biggest thing. It might seem strange to Westerners but for many Chinese these Games are an opportunity to save face after four centuries of humiliation, often at Western hands. The international protests surrounding the torch relay only reinforced this view.

The money should speak for itself. By most measures, China now has the fourth largest economy in the world. It is on target to overtake the US as the world's largest economy in the next 30 years.

The country's poverty rate is down from 53% in 1981 to 8% in 2001, the year China was awarded the Games and it was admitted to the World Trade Organisation - talk about a twin assault on America's authority.

And the millions are self-evident. With a population of more than 1.3 billion and growing, there are more than enough sporty types from which to assemble a squad.

In 2006, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) estimated China had 185,184 young athletes in training at 1,782 specialist sports schools. As USOC's head of sports performance Steve Roush said recently: "You start doing the math and that's what keeps me up at night."

He didn't need to add that those young athletes were being pushed to near breaking point by remorseless coaches, often hired from nations with a reputation for taking chemical shortcuts; the American media usually does that without any prompting.

An internet search on the subject of the medal table match-up throws up numerous American articles on how the Chinese are trawling their young for potential champions, packaging them off to secretive sports factories to be turned into medal-winning automatons.

Fair comment or getting your excuses in early?

You will also find plenty of references to China's attempts in the 1990s to become a power on the track and in the pool. The shadow cast by Ma Junren's "turtle soup"-fuelled distance runners and their HGH-smuggling swimming counterparts is one the Chinese are still labouring under.

But while it may be true the Chinese authorities want this victory a little too much, there are martinet coaches (and pushy parents) all over the world, pain is a given for all would-be winners and the Americans haven't really got a leg to stand on when it comes to doping.

And China's rapid progress on the Olympic stage has not just been a numbers game. Not in a classic sense anyway. They've been quite cute too.

The Chinese authorities got their thinking caps on the minute they received the nod from the International Olympic Committee in 2001.

The result was "Project 119", a systematic push for champions in five medal-rich sports the country had struggled in at previous Games: athletics, canoeing/kayaking, rowing, sailing and swimming.

Wins in these sports (which now account for 122 chances to win gold out of a total of 302) would be added to the almost certain victories China would claim in badminton, diving, gymnastics, shooting, table tennis and weighlifting - traditional sources of success the Chinese had almost maxed out on. There is every chance of complete sweeps for the hosts in at least two of those events this summer.

The Chinese won one gold medal in the "Project 119" sports in 2000 and four in 2004. They will much more than that in Beijing.

The plan, however, has not been a complete success.

The sailors have improved and will have home advantage helping them to wins in the light winds of Qingdao. But canoeing/kayaking has proved a tougher nut to crack and coach Joseph Capousek was sacked earlier this year for not delivering the required progress.

Capousek, who had coached German paddlers to 18 Olympic golds across four Games, left acrimoniously, claiming the Chinese were pushing too hard, putting too much pressure on their athletes.

The rowers, on the other hand, have made huge strides, particularly in women's events. The American magazine Sports Illustrated recently tipped China to take five golds and a silver at the rowing lake, a stunning result for a country which has never won an Olympic rowing gold before.

US swimmer Michael Phelps at the National Aquatics Centre in Beijing 3 August

Athletics and swimming, as previously mentioned, have been far more problematic for China. The two biggest sports at the Games, in terms of medals available and public profile, are US strongholds. Half of all the many Olympic medals the Americans have won since 1896 have come from the pool and track.

Chinese hopes in these two sports rest (as success of the entire Games appear to at times) on the slight shoulders of Liu Xiang, the hurdler who won China's first ever athletics gold in Athens.

They have high hopes for the women's marathon too, and they may pick up a medal or two in the Aquatics Cube, but when one American swimmer might win eight golds on his own it is uneven battle in these two sports.

In fact, this clash of sporting cultures will take place without many hand-to-hand skirmishes. Much will be made of the few occasions they do go one-on-one (Yao Ming v the Dream Team, for example) but these contests will be rare, unlike the numerous surrogate scraps the Cold War rivalry threw up.

No, this race, which the bookies think the Chinese should edge, will be settled by which nation harvests more medals from its most fertile events. Events in the Olympic backwaters of the shooting and weightlifting venues will decide this competition, not who wins the basketball.

For their part, the Chinese can't seem to decide if they are heading for glorious vindication or not. At times, they sound like school kids who think they've just aced a test only to hear what somebody else wrote down - doubts creep in, expectations are re-managed, rivals are described as giants.

Does any of this matter, though? If China's athletes do deliver the glory their political masters desire, is it curtains for the US? Will that signal the end of the American century?

No, of course not. They're just games. It's not really war without weapons. But it should be fun to watch from the sidelines.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


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