BEIJING -- Peter Ueberroth saw this coming two dozen years ago, when China defied the Soviet-led boycott and brought more than 350 athletes to the Summer Games after an absence of 24 years. ''In 1984, I was mainly worried about whether they would come,'' says the US Olympic Committee chairman, who headed the Los Angeles organizing committee. ''When they won the first event my reaction was, wow, these guys are good.''
Now, the hosts of the XXIXth Games that begin here Friday are good enough to knock the Americans from their accustomed place at the top of the gold-medal standings, where they've been for the last three Olympiads. Since 1996, China has moved from fourth to third to second in the gilded rankings and was just four behind the US in 2004. ''Going into it, I would have to consider them the favorites,'' reckons Steve Roush, the USOC's chief of sport performance.
Whether or not the Chinese can overtake the Americans, it's clear they are now their chief global rivals. For half a century that position had been held by the Soviet Union/Russia, which had been either first or second at every Games it attended since it first turned up in 1952.
But China's Great Leap Upward has made it the primary challenger and the presence of the Games in its capital will make for an intriguing head-to-head clash for dominance.
''This will bring excitement and a tension to the team race that we haven't seen for several quadrenniums,'' predicts Roush. ''It's great for the Olympic movement to have that kind of a race at the top of the table.''
It's all but certain that the US will win the overall count, given its massive 50-medal edge in track and field and swimming. But the race that China cares most about is the one for gold medals, which is how the Olympic movement historically has calculated it. ''The world pretty much considers the gold medal tally as who's Number 1,'' says Roush. ''The Chinese gladly would give away the overall count in order to win the most golds.''
While the US won 102 medals to China's 63 in 2004, its edge in golds was only 36-32. Given their new emphasis on multi-medal sports like shooting, rowing, and boxing and the traditional host country bump, the Chinese should get more than 40 this time. ''You look at sports like diving, badminton, and table tennis that they've clearly dominated in the past, then you add on some where they've started to do well,'' says Roush. ''There are 300 medal events and they can pick them up pretty quickly.''
Chinese officials consistently and insistently have been downplaying their prospects, possibly to lessen giddy domestic expectations. ''America and Russia are in a leading group of their own,'' Cui Dalin, the national Olympic committee's vice chairman, said last year. ''We are trying to be the leaders of the second group.''
As Olympic fever has swept through the country, so have dreams of an historic gold rush and the athletes are feeling a demand to deliver. ''You can imagine the pressure when 1.3 billion people are watching you,'' said men's gymnastics coach Huang Yubin, who told the China Daily that he would ''jump from the highest building'' if his team didn't win more than the one gold it managed in Athens. ''We're nervous because we know we have to succeed and failure is unacceptable.''
The squeeze is greatest on the country's marquee athletes like basketball player Yao Ming, gymnast Yang Wei, hurdler Liu Xiang, diver Guo Jingjing and marathoner Zhou Chunxiu. ''I have never felt such kind of pressure before,'' says Zhou, the world silver medalist.
While performing at home almost always provides a medal boost, it also thrusts athletes under an unrelenting spotlight that illuminates failure as much as it does success.
''Fighting on home soil may be an advantage in other sports,'' said shooting coach Wang Yifu, ''but in shooting we call it the 'home venue curse.'''
The spotlight will be the most glaring on competitors in sports where China needs to pile up golds, like shooting, diving, table tennis, badminton, and weightlifting. Since the Americans are likely to win more than 30 golds just in track and field and swimming, the hosts can't leave anything uncollected elsewhere.
That's the price the Chinese have paid for all but abandoning the two most medal-rich sports on the program, but past doping scandals in both have made them skittish about trying to play catch-up. ''I have to face the reality that we have lagged behind for decades,'' acknowledges Cui. ''The changes won't happen overnight.''
China did so poorly at last year's world swimming and track and field championships (five medals total) that skeptics assumed that it must have had secluded ''shadow'' teams that it would unveil on the eve of the Games to grab fistfuls of medals.
''I would be surprised, particularly because of concerns about how the Chinese would be perceived by everyone,'' says Roush, who closely monitors the prospects of the top US rivals. ''To have a hidden team, a shadow team, would take away from their success and create a cloud of suspicion. I don't think the Chinese want that.''
What they've been doing for several years is pouring resources into other multi-medal sports they've previously ignored, like the combatives -- boxing, judo and taekwondo -- where they could pick up a half-dozen here.
What's striking about the US-China rivalry, though, is how rarely they'll go head-to-head over gold medals. Where the one is strong, the other tends to be weak. In the sports where the Chinese figure to mine a mother lode -- diving, badminton, table tennis, weightlifting -- the Americans aren't expected to win a single medal.
The biggest showdown will come in women's gymnastics, where the US outpointed China for the team title on the final rotation at last year's world meet and where the ongoing controversy over the Chinese allegedly using several underage athletes highlights the differences between the two countries' sports programs.
Doctoring identification cards and issuing questionable passports, which China is suspected of having done to make half of its young team eligible for the Games, is much easier to do in a society where the athletes are trained from childhood in state-run sports schools, which also were the cornerstone of the Soviet Union's sporting colossus.
What makes the Chinese program even more effective than the USSR's is the immense size of its potential athlete pool and the government's ability and willingness to pour $100 million into development. ''When I knew their resources and what they intended to do, I clearly expected them to be the dominant team in the Olympic Games for many, many years to come,'' says Ueberroth. ''I'm not surprised at all.''
If it hadn't been for wars, social upheaval, and diplomatic barriers, China might well have made its Great Leap Upward decades ago. World War II and the subsequent Communist takeover ravaged the country. The International Olympic Committee's awkward recognition of the ''two Chinas'' -- the People's Republic and Taiwan -- prompted the Chinese (who called president Avery Brundage ''a faithful menial of US imperialists'') to pull out of the movement in 1958. It wasn't until after the decade-long Cultural Revolution and the death of party chairman Mao Zedong in 1976 that China rejoined the Olympic family.
But when the Chinese finally turned up in Los Angeles and finished fourth in the medal count, they made a dramatic statement. The former ''sick man of East Asia'' that once believed in ''friendship first, competition second'' was in the global game to win. At each Games, China's medal count grows and its anthem is heard more frequently.
During the next 17 days, for the first time, it will be heard by spectators who know the words and who've been waiting decades to see the Middle Kingdom at the top of the Olympic world. And the Chinese won't stop here. A society that created dynasties and measures time in centuries isn't simply interested in a summer sporting splash for the citizenry.
''This is not a one-shot thing for the Beijing Olympics,'' says Jim Scherr, the USOC's chief executive officer. ''This is something we will have to contend with for a long time. This is a system we know is here to stay.''