Yi Jianlian, a 7ft tall former NBA basketball player, carried the Chinese flag into the Olympics opening ceremony.
He was the eighth successive representative of his sport to fulfil the flag-bearing role since China sent their first full team to an Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984. It is the height that wins them the job, a symbol of how the world’s most populous nation wants to be seen standing tall in the world.
That march through the Olympic Stadium on Friday night has continued unabated through these Games. So far they have amassed 11 gold medals from diving, gymnastics, shooting, swimming and weightlifting, six silver and three bronze.
Attention has focused most specifically on the 16-year-old swimming phenomenon Ye Shiwen and how she swam the final 50 metres freestyle leg of her 400 individual medley race faster than Ryan Lochte managed in the men’s equivalent just minutes earlier. It was a performance that caused her to deny accusations of drug taking.
She was supported by Lord Coe, chairman of the London Olympics. ‘You have to be very careful jumping to the conclusion that a great breakthrough in sport is down to anything other than great coaching, hard work and formidable talent,’ he said.
‘The balance of judgment always has to be given to the athlete. I can think of times in my own career where I took big chunks of time off world records. I broke the record of Alberto Juantorena – one of the greatest 800m runners of all time – and I know people questioned that. People were saying nobody’s run the first lap that fast, nobody’s held on that well down the back straight.
‘In 1979 my personal best was a smidgeon under 1:44. By the end of the season I’d run 1:42 and I’d broken three world records. People thought I’d come out of nowhere when actually I’d been working towards that for 10 years.
‘I think you have to be careful and you have to be respectful.’
Big star: China’s Yi Jianlian (left)
Big star: Swimming sensation Ye Shiwen
Suspicions will linger about Ye but Coe is right that hard work is driving the whole Chinese machine, as well as limitless funding and a cultural structure that could not be applied in Britain.
China has what amounts to a national sports machine in the image of the old Eastern Bloc. Children as young as six are tested for their size, flexibility and skills. The sporty youngsters are then sent away to one of 3,000 schools and fed up the structure from local level to state, regional and national schools.
I stood in a table tennis hall at a school in central Beijing. There were rows of tables, minimally 100 in all. Earnest kids fine-tuned their skills. This focus is replicated in other sports. The likes of diving and gymnastics, with emphasis on suppleness and balance, are grouped together.
‘Winning pride at the Olympics’ was the name given to the project when Beijing won the right to stage the 2008 Games. So successful has it been that 28 years after the Chinese first entered as a proper delegation they are the strongest Olympic nation.
The medal table from Beijing told the story of their triumph: China won 51 gold medals, the USA 36. Some believed that the haul was a Chinese zenith, a one-off for a home Games.
All gold: Chinese gymnasts…
… and divers
That appears not to be the case, judging by how the London Olympics have begun. China have yet to scale their Everest. They still have scope to improve in other sports over the next few years: track and field, rowing, sailing and swimming. They could also turn their attention to team sports, having not sought to prioritise those because the medal rewards are fewer. For example, women’s football, a big deal to America, represents an inefficient investment with a return of one medal per squad of 18.
With a population of 1.3 billion, they can do what they like. It is essentially a numbers game.
Gold medalist: Siling Yi
Can anyone stop them? American sport lives off sponsorship rather than government subsidy, so they must find ways to be smarter: better coaching and recruitment. They could also, like China, embrace sports they largely neglect: rowing (other than the eight, which they love), shooting, canoeing, shooting, table tennis, archery, badminton. Strangely, the American public, as opposed to their Olympic Association, are blind to the emergence of China dominance.
That is partly because the American convention is to present the medal table in order of medals won rather than first counting the number of golds. On that score, they triumphed in Beijing 110 to 100.
All the while, China are being shrewd in pouring money into women’s sport because it is relatively poorly funded around the world. The majority of their Olympic team are women.
The objections to the Chinese model are obvious. They take children away from their families and factory-produce athletes.
The other side of that is that the chosen ones, usually poor, are fed and cared for. Some fame and some money is their reward for ultimate success.
Criticism of the Chinese juggernaut prompted defensive comments in the China Daily newspaper yesterday. ‘Our athletes are not medal machines,’ said one contributor.
‘They are supposed to enjoy the Games and make people want to join in sport.
‘People feel proud for them no matter what results they get as long as they did their best. No one is a failure in the Olympics.
‘China used to use gold medals to prove we are a strong nation and gain respect from others. We don’t need that any more.’
In truth, the Chinese model defies the ethos of sport as we know it in Britain. It is force feeding rather than fun. It is also, for now and the foreseeable future, the way to dominate the Olympic world.