China Presents Its Diving Dream Team

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China’s enormous government-run athletic program has long targeted these Games as the year when the world’s most populous nation will lead all others in the Olympic medal tally. With the Beijing Games about to begin, no sport gives China a greater opportunity to assert its athletic prowess than diving.

Medals are awarded in eight Olympic diving events, and China has a chance to win all eight golds. In some events, China could win both gold and silver, and the only obstacle that would prevent China from winning gold, silver, and bronze is the limit of two divers per country in each event.

China’s supremacy in diving is nothing new: The Chinese have won the majority of the diving golds in each of the last four Olympic Games. In 2000, China won five diving gold medals in Sydney; in 2004, China won six diving gold medals in Athens, and at the 2007 world diving championships, China won seven golds, falling just one event short of a clean sweep.

The Chinese team should be stronger than ever this year, with many past winners returning and several talented young divers competing in their first Olympics. And — as in all sports with subjective scoring — China, as the home team, could benefit from favorable judging.

All in all, China’s diving team is looking like this year’s version of the Dream Team.

Guo Jingjing is the Michael Jordan of women’s diving, a 26-year-old who already has two Olympic gold medals and two Olympic silvers. She is the favorite to win the three-meter springboard and, with teammate Wu Minxia, the synchronized springboard. Such a star is Guo that she has to fend off paparazzi in Beijing, and she has angered the Chinese government by carving out her own sponsorship deals with corporations including McDonald’s.

If Guo weren’t around, Wu would be the best female springboard diver in the world. Guo and Wu shared the gold in the synchronized springboard in 2004, and Guo took gold while Wu took silver in the individual springboard. It would be a huge upset if they don’t do the same this year.

Likewise, China’s female platform divers are expected to take silver and gold and share the synchronized platform gold. Wang Xin and Chen Ruolin are both 16 years old, and lack the impressive résumés of Guo and Wu. But they finished first and second on the individual platform at last year’s world championships.

The women’s platform is where the best-known American diver, Laura Wilkinson, will compete. Wilkinson, who won gold in the 10-meter platform in 2000 but finished a disappointing fifth in 2004, is back for what she says will be her final Olympics at age 30. She may be as good a diver now as she was when she won gold in 2000, but China’s diving program has advanced far beyond America’s, to the point where America didn’t win a single diving medal in 2004. Even the best American diver performing at the top of her game is an extreme long shot to beat China’s top athletes.

The greatest diver in American history, Greg Louganis, played a small part in the rise of Chinese diving. Louganis won both the springboard and platform gold medals in both 1984 and 1988, and Chinese divers took the silver in three of those four events. The inability to beat Louganis motivated China to reshape its diving program, with national coaches obsessively studying film of Louganis to determine how to match his technical precision.

But while the Chinese once looked up to America’s best diver, there is virtually no chance that the Americans will match Louganis and defeat the Chinese this year. American Troy Dumais, competing in the men’s springboard in his third Olympics, has the best chance of any American man to win a medal, but he’s very unlikely to do better than a bronze behind China’s He Chong and Qin Kai.

In two of the other three men’s diving events, the Chinese are heavy favorites. In the synchronized springboard, Qin and Wang Feng are expected to win gold, with the American team of Thomas Finchum and David Boudia having a chance at a silver or bronze. And in the synchronized platform, China’s Lin Yue and Huo Liang are the favorites for gold.

The only diving event in which China is anything other than a heavy favorite is the men’s platform. Germany’s Sascha Klein, Cuba’s Jose Guerra, and defending world champion Gleb Galperin of Russia all have a legitimate chance of defeating China’s best platform medal hope, Zhou Luxin. The men’s platform takes place during the last weekend of the Games, and is the final diving event, so Zhou may step up to the platform on the night before the closing ceremony with the pressure of knowing that his countrymen and -women have gone 7-for-7 in gold medals before him.

Will Zhou make it 8-for-8? If he does, China’s diving team will have accomplished one of the great achievements of the Beijing Olympics.

Mr. Smith is a writer for

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