By Phillip Whitten
SYDNEY, January 21. CHINA'S top young athletes are ready for the Australian Youth Olympics, which opened last night, but their eyes — as well as those of top Chinese sports officials — are fixed firmly on the future: Three years in the future, to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
China has brought an outstanding 139-athlete team to Sydney, third largest behind the host nation and New Zealand. And the Chinese squad is loaded with young talent, particularly in track ad field, gymnastics and swimming.
China's Olympic Committee deputy secretary-general, Song Luzeng, was frank about his country's intentions at the Games.
"We are hoping that many of them will be become the athletes for the 2008 Olympic Games. They are very strong and this is a very good opportunity for them to practise," he said.
In a surprising statement, Alan Thompson, Australia's national head swim coach, Alan Thompson, said earlier this month he thinks that China will replace the US as the team to beat in 2008.
Thompson's thoughts were echoed by China's national swimming team coach, Bingyan Han, who said yesterday that a modest pool performance at the Sydney Olympics had spurred China into action. "At the 2000 Olympic Games we lost a lot. So from that time the Chinese Swimming Association was more serious. We are serious [about making] the coach and swimmers practice and train very, very hard."
No doubt Chinese swimmers will train very, very hard, just as swimmers all around the world will train.
Australian coaches had lectured his country's swimming team and coaches, and coaches had been sent to the US after the Short Course World Championships last October to observe that team's training methods.
"We have also introduced the training and management systems of the Australian team and invited the American coach to have lectures in China with the national team," Bingyan said.
Australia's youth coach for swimming, Leigh Nugent, said the Chinese youth Olympic team was a serious challenge to the slightly younger Australian team and was a portent of Beijing in three years.
"The host nation always makes an extraordinary effort for an Olympic Games. My attitude is that the Chinese will try harder than they have in the past."
This observer believes that while the Chinese certainly will benefit from "home pool advantage," it appears highly unlikely will legitimately challenge the US dominance in world swimming.
Only once before did China take the number one spot in women's swimming — they never made much of a splash in men's competition. That was in the 1990s and, as we all learned, China's rapid rise was fueled by illegal performance-enhancing chemicals.
Any similar such vault to the top between now and 2008 will undoubtedly be examined carefully, and skeptically, by the rest of the world.
China has Luo Xuejuan, who will be defending her crown in the 100-meter breast. On the men's side, it has young Wu Peng, who is good enough to be a finalist but will have to fight for a medal. It also has several other medal contenders, including Yu Yang, plus a number of promising youngsters, but it is very hard to imagine that China, as a nation, will have the depth to be able to mount a serious challenge to the US.