China winning more than gold

08/17/2008 12:23 AM

08/17/2008 12:33 AM

It was a sister-in-law who put the opening ceremonies in perspective. "Can you imagine 15,000 Americans doing that?" she exclaimed.

She was referring to one of the most breathtaking displays of choreography, digital graphics and nationalistic chutzpah ever. The opening of the Beijing Olympic Games made the typical Super Bowl halftime seem about as spectacular as a high school band's Salute to Pizza routine.

Skeptics have reasons to fault the spectacle in Beijing.

For one, the 15,000 "volunteers" were soldiers and other government minions. (Heck! If anyone had given me a choice between spending eight months rehearsing intricate drills or freezing my butt off in Army boot camp at Fort Dix, N.J., I wouldn't have thought twice.)

Then there was the mini-scandal over the unbelievably well-coordinated "Footprints of History" fireworks, marching across China's capital city. Turns out the fireworks were digitized. (NBC announcers participated in the fraud.)

And, of course, that 9-year-old girl who sang so beautifully was pulling a Milli Vanilli lip synch; the real vocalist had been banished from the world stage because her crooked teeth offended authorities.

China's success on the awards podium has been only slightly less phenomenal than the opening ceremonies. At this writing, the U.S. and China are neck and neck in the medal count. Both are out-pointing the field. Nevertheless, one hates to think where the U.S. team would be if, as a tyke, Michael Phelps had decided to take up air guitar instead of swimming.

I haven't yet heard much of the grumbling that used to follow the Olympian prowess of the U.S.S.R., East Germany and other Soviet puppet states before the Berlin Wall tumbled. The jury's still out on the gender of some of those Commie broads that took all the medals in the hammer throw.

And how unfair was it that our athletes were "amateurs" while theirs were "professionals," snatched from their mothers' arms as infants and raised in government training centers, a privileged class amid a totalitarian empire?

Given that China has nearly a fourth of the earth's population from which to recruit and train athletes, the Beijing Games certainly have put the world on notice. There's no sport so obscure that the government of China won't devote whatever resources it needs to dominate world competition.

Think about this: Chinese gymnasts who some say were too young to compete legitimately (one newspaper reported some were only 14), very likely will be pushed aside by even younger kids before the next Olympics.

If China keeps this up, it's hard to imagine that the U.S. could mount a training program on a level to compete head to head. For one, American taxpayers would have a hard time with a public outlay of that magnitude. For another, many of our best athletes gravitate to team sports, which either have never been Olympic sports, such as football, or are about to get the boot (baseball and softball).

Thank goodness for basketball.

Perhaps Winthrop University would do the United States a favor by ending talk of a football program and get into competitive kayaking or table tennis instead.

Fortunately, which country ends up with the most gold in Beijing won't affect our lives to any great degree. Medals success won't lower the price of gasoline, reverse home mortgage forfeitures or determine the outcome of the November elections.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson we could take from the Olympics is as metaphor for China's emergence as a 21st century super power. In part because our political leaders and popular media tend to ignore what's going on in the world unless it's a direct military threat, as a nation we have paid insufficient attention to China's growing economic dominance. On one level, we realize that much of the stuff Wal-Mart sells is labeled "Made in China," but we haven't fully appreciated that China's economic growth affects everything from energy prices to our ballooning national debt.

If these Olympics serve as a wake-up call about over shortsighted economic and energy policies, the Beijing games will have had a silver lining.

In the meantime, perhaps Michael Phelps will consider a career in politics....

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