(LONDON) — It’s beginning to sound like a broken record at these Olympics. The Chinese anthem blasts out again and again and again as its athletes ascend the podium.
The biggest match of all at these Olympics isn’t in the pool or on the parallel bars, it is on the podium where China and the U.S. are battling it out for top spot in the medal count.
The Cold War is long over, but anyone watching these games can see that the U.S. and China are in an Olympic gold war.
While the U.S. medal haul has been consistent in recent years, China has rocketed from nowhere to top of the heap. Just look at the numbers:
1988: U.S. — 36; China — 5
2000: U.S. — 37; China — 28
2008: U.S. — 36; China — 51
How do they do it? This week, ABC News correspondent Gloria Riviera in Beijing visited one of the thousands of sports schools where future Olympians are already being groomed. These kids are hand-picked from a population of more than a billion. They start at ages 5 and 6.
Headmaster Gao Jiamei told Riviera that the secret to China’s success is young athletes who train hard and can endure hardship.
To China’s many detractors these schools are called “Medal Factories.” Children are subjected to a grueling regimen of practice that becomes the sole obsession of their lives. For many parents, the honor of having a potential Olympian is offset by the huge sacrifice. In reality, many have to give up their children for the good of the nation’s pursuit of gold.
The father of weightlifting gold medalist Lin Qinfeng has said that he hasn’t seen his son in six years and that he wouldn’t have recognized him on TV this week if the commentator hadn’t mentioned his name.
Synchronized-diving gold medalist Wu Minxia had no chance to savor her victory at these games. As soon she won the gold her family broke the news that her grandparents had died a year ago. She was kept in the dark so she’d stay focused on victory here in London.
But the secret to China’s success isn’t just early, relentless and sometimes heartless training. There’s also a strategy.
They have taken a page from the old communists of East Germany who used to win buckets of medals.
“The East Germans understood Olympic math,” said USA Today sports columnist and ABC News sports consultant Christine Brennan, “and the Chinese get that too. Which is simply to say, that you take the sports where the medals are most plentiful, and that’s where you throw all your energy.”
And so while the Chinese have done well in diving and gymnastics where their acrobatic tradition gives them a natural affinity, they have also done staggeringly well in sports that most countries overlook, the low-hanging fruit of the medal count.
So far China’s won seven medals in shooting and seven in weightlifting. Seven of those 14 medals are gold.
It’s all part of a very focused national obsession to show the world that China is the superpower of sport.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Stephanie Halasz, Jason Hanna and Livia Borghese, CNN
Rafael Romo, CNN Newswire