BEIJING - By now, the Chinese national anthem has been played so often at the Games of the XXIXth Olympiad that most foreign spectators probably can hum it from memory. With just five full days left before the stadium cauldron is snuffed out, the hosts had a substantial lead over the United States in the gold medal race (39-22) and were within five (72-67) in the overall standings.
And while the Americans probably will collect more total medals than any other country, as they have since 1996, it's likely they'll concede the golden tally - which most of the world considers the true measure of dominance - to the Chinese, who've already won seven more events than they did in Athens four years ago.
"If you look at the strength they've shown so far, it will be a significant challenge to overcome them in the gold-medal count in the time we have left," concedes Steve Roush, the US Olympic Committee's chief of sports performance, who said a year ago that the Yanks would be underdogs.
Even if the Chinese don't win any more golds - and they figure to pick up at least a dozen more - the US would have to cash virtually every opportunity it has for the rest of the week, winning half a dozen in track and field plus a couple in beach volleyball and all of the team sports just to catch up. "We knew it was going to be a very competitive landscape coming in," says Roush.
The reasons for China's unprecedented gold rush are no secret. The usual boost from playing at home in front of chanting, flag-waving fans. A massive investment in training and development that began even before Beijing landed the Games seven years ago. And a relentless focus on multi-medal sports, especially on the women's side, where they've mined 23 of their golds.
Everybody expected the hosts would dominate the sports in which they've traditionally been strong - gymnastics (seven golds), diving (five and counting), badminton (three), and table tennis (two, with two more coming). But they've also picked up an astounding eight in weightlifting, five in shooting, and three in judo, plus their first ever in rowing (women's quadruple sculls). "We knew they had targeted weightlifting," says Roush, "but eight out of 10 is pretty phenomenal."
Adding in solos in archery, fencing, swimming, and wrestling, the Chinese have won golds in a dozen sports. By contrast, the US has earned its in nine, but it has won multiples in only three - track and field, shooting, and swimming.
Twelve of those golds came in the Water Cube, with a certain man-fish from Baltimore wholly or partially responsible for eight of them. Even so, that was five fewer than the Americans won at last year's world meet in Melbourne, with the dip coming on the women's side.
Swimming and track historically have provided the overwhelming number of Uncle Sam's gold medals, and coming up empty in both 100-meter finals (for the first time since 1976) and the men's shot put definitely hurt. "There was a little bit of a rocky start," acknowledges Roush. "You have some superstars who are struggling."
Things turned brighter Monday, when the men swept the 400 hurdles and Stephanie Brown Trafton became the first US woman to win the discus since 1932, and there are more chances ahead in the hurdles, the women's 200, the men's 400 and pole vault, and the 4 x 400 relays.
The Americans should pick up enough silvers and bronzes inside the Bird's Nest to help push their total count over 100 again. They've gotten a big boost already from the shooters (six medals) and the fencers, whose six (including the women's sabre sweep) was an unexpected motherlode. "Fencing has been the Cinderella story for us," says Roush.
The US has been pumping up the multi-medal sports, too. Gymnastics had produced seven with one more night to go and rowing, which always has stressed the eights, picked up its first single sculling medal in 20 years from Michelle Guerette.
But the disparity in the gold count comes from a difference in emphasis. The Chinese want to grab fistfuls from a handful of sports. The Americans judge their success by relays and team sports. By that standard, they're doing marvelously well so far.
Except for men's soccer, every US team still is in the hunt for gold. Women's softball and the two basketball teams are odds-on to win, the men's and women's water polo teams both are playing for medals for the first time, and the women's soccer team, after a stunning opening loss, is back in the final against Brazil. "We're doing incredibly well in the team sports," says Roush.
The Chinese think that taking two weeks to produce one medal is a waste of resources. Their ideal is a one-man (or preferably a one-woman) medal machine like Michael Phelps, who'll crank out one or two golds per day and keep the anthem playing all week long. Their lifters already have won more than all of the US teams will combined, which is why China may well claim 50 golds, which no country has managed since the Soviet Union piled up 55 in 1988.
This isn't a one-shot explosion to light up the sky for the home folks for 17 days. The Chinese, who didn't turn up at the Games until 1984, are in the bullion business for the long haul. "I would expect this to be ongoing for a decade or so," reckons Roush, who keeps tabs on what's in everyone's pipeline. "While the Chinese wanted to do well here, their ultimate goal is to sustain it. In 2012, they will clearly come in as the favorites."