Can China stay on top of the Olympics medal table?

File photo of Yao Ming carrying the Chinese national flag during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
Image caption China is sending a smaller delegation to the 2012 games - suggesting a more pragmatic approach towards winning gold medals

In the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, China won 51 gold medals and became world leader in the medal table for the first time. With the games in London now beginning, the BBC's Yuwen Wu looks at the current medal hopes of China - and what winning gold means to the country.

China's participation in the Olympics got off to an uncertain start.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) first competed at the Olympic Games in 1952 - at the summer games in Helsinki - only participating in one event.

At that time the International Olympic Committee allowed both the PRC and the Republic of China - which had recently relocated to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War - to compete, although the latter withdrew in protest over the PRC's inclusion.

The dispute over the political status of China meant that the PRC did not participate in the Olympics again until the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Its first appearance at the summer Olympic Games after 1952 was at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when it took 15 gold medals and came fourth on the medal table, largely in gymnastics, shooting and diving. Their success was partly due to the fact that the Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the games.

The first ever gold medal for China, won by Mr Xu Haifeng in the men's pistol event in the Los Angeles Games, was hailed as the "great breakthrough", ending China's shame over its "sick man of Asia" image.

All the gold medallists became instant national heroes and were given all sorts of honours.

First or second?

Since then, China has steadily climbed the medal table, finally claiming top spot on home soil in the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games.

It defeated its fierce rivals, the US and Russia, to second and third place respectively.

Apart from strong performances in traditional favourite categories such as table tennis and diving, China also won gold in more diverse sports including boxing and yachting.

The question on everybody's mind for the London games is whether China can sustain its dominant position and continue occupying the top spot in 2012.

Not likely, if you believe the predictions given by Goldman Sachs.

According to them, China stripped of home advantage will come second in the medal table with 33 gold medals, while the US will come first with 37 gold medals.

However the Chinese official news agency Xinhua is more optimistic.

Image caption Reigning Chinese Olympic champion Lin Dan will be hoping to retain his gold medal

It predicts that London 2012 will see China and the US fighting for dominance - and if all goes well China will ultimately prevail, with 37 gold medals.

Their prediction is based on two factors: First, China should do well in traditional categories of table tennis, badminton, diving, gymnastics, shooting and weightlifting - securing about 28 gold medals.

On top of this, there is credible potential to get another 10 golds in competitions such as swimming, athletics, judo, boxing and taekwondo. If this happens, Xinhua says, China will once again top the table.

BBC Chinese Olympics reporter Chen Zhuang - who has studied past performances and present form of the Chinese and US teams - sits somewhere in between these two predictions. He thinks that the US will somehow overcome China's challenge and become dominant again, with 37 gold medals compared to 34 for China.

But in contrast to the games four years ago, when China faced immense pressure to perform at its best, the pressure seems to be lessened somewhat this time around.

For starters, China is sending a smaller delegation, with some 200 fewer athletes than four years ago, suggesting a more pragmatic approach.

Secondly, the authorities seem to be playing down medal expectations, stressing the unpredictable nature of sport.

Just one goal

A closer look at media reports reveals, however, that the hunger for gold is just as fierce as before.

The head of the gymnastics delegation, Huang Yubin, told the team that there is just one goal in London - to win more gold medals.

Table tennis team leader Huang Biao is equally ambitious, telling BBC Chinese that his members are confident of winning gold in all four competitions.

There is a political dimension as well, as expressed by Liu Peng, chairman of China's Olympic Committee.

This will be the first Olympics after the Beijing games, he says, and will show that China is becoming a big sporting nation.

He asks Chinese sportsmen and women to remember the "historic responsibilities" on their shoulders and do their best for their country as a positive contribution to the important party congress later this year at which the country's new leadership will be unveiled.

So it seems that sport cannot be separated from politics after all.

There will be rich rewards for the gold medallists financially as well.

Officials deny that a fixed sum of money will be presented to the winners, but according to Chinese media reports, hundreds of thousands of Yuan will be presented to medallists. The top stars can also expect lucrative sponsorship deals.

For some this is in itself a win-win situation. More medals are good for the country and provide bigger pockets for the medallists.

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