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A mid the bustle of Tiananmen Square is a semitrailer-sized digital sign that once counted down the seconds before Hong Kong’s return to China. Today, the massive neon numbers are ticking toward another momentous event: the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, when Beijing takes the world spotlight.

Besting international powerhouses such as Toronto, Paris, Istanbul, Turkey, and Osaka, Japan, Beijing’s selection by the International Olympic Committee was monumental on cultural and economic fronts. As host, the city is expected to attract 1.8 million visitors, nearly $1 billion in tourism-related revenue and more than $16 billion in investment, according to Chinese reports.

While China as a whole is savoring its victory, the indirect winner may be the aquatics industry. Already, the nation’s aquatic athletes are some of China’s top performers — and superstars. Its diving team alone swept the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Today, Chinese swimming pools are filling with little girls dreaming of being the next Guo Jing Jing, the nation’s glamorous diving sensation whose face graces everything from McDonald’s ads to Budweiser billboards.

With that kind of enthusiasm for aquatics and the Olympics just around the corner, pool construction is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, a middle class with money to spend and leisure time to fill is showing growing interest in water-based fitness activities. The upshot: As China prepares its capital city for the global stage and its athletes for a shot at the gold, its aquatics industry could capitalize on a golden opportunity of its own.

A new era

It’s taken a long time for China to reach this point. It participated in the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, but bowed out in 1956 to protest Taiwan’s recognition as an independent nation. In 1960 and 1968, the Nationalist government in Taiwan sent athletes in China’s place. It wasn’t until 1971 that the International Olympic Committee resolved the China-Taiwan issue and reinstated the People’s Republic as the true representative of the Chinese, causing the Nationalist government to pull out of the 1976 Games because it could not compete under the name “China.”

Since then, China’s Olympic star has continued to rise. Today, the country ranks 16th on the all-time medal chart, an amazing feat considering its success only began in the past six games. China’s dynamic diving team swept a record six gold medals in Athens 2004, totaling 29 medals in the past five Olympics (58 percent of gold medals awarded). The People’s Republic ranked third overall in total medal count at the 2000 Atlanta Games, then followed it up with second in Athens 2004. In 2008, China dreams of taking first place, with swimmers eyeing the 84 medals lying poolside at the National Aquatic Center.

They have good reason to hope. A gold medal sweep at the East Asian Games in November 2005 proved that China is well-positioned for a strong performance on its home turf.

But the nation’s success — especially in swimming — has not come without controversy. Since 1990, more than 40 Chinese swimmers have failed drug tests. That’s triple the number of any other swimming country during that same period. At the 1994 world championships in Rome, 12 medals were accepted by Chinese swimmers while onlookers protested by waving syringes. In response to doping suspicions, China is enlisting a record 4,500 drug tests during its 2008 games, up from the 3,500 performed in Athens.

Diving, on the other hand, has gone a bit more smoothly. Linked closely to Chinese acrobatics, the sport has long been popular among many universities and local clubs. Unique training protocols developed over the years have toughened the athletes to a higher discipline than other nations’ divers. Another method involves coaches videotaping the divers and synchronizing their movements on computers to ascertain exactly whether they have met their target. This type of training has been exported to other nations that hire Chinese coaches, making diving an increasingly competitive sport.

In addition to swimming and diving, China competes in synchronized swimming and water polo, but neither sport is terribly popular. China ranked 6th at the world championship and 7th in Athens. This year, the country’s first women’s water polo team was formed from a group of university players. They are hoping to perform better than the men’s team, which is notoriously weak. Both teams will compete in 2008.

Reaching for gold

China may be pleased with its athletes, but it is ecstatic over the opportunities that accompany winning an Olympic bid. “The Olympics brings a lot of construction, IT, trading and other services like the tourist industry,” says Shu-Gang Wang, Ph.D., associate professor at Peking University’s School of Economics in Beijing.

Experts estimate that the games will bring up to $16.4 billion in new business. The Olympics will further fuel a boom in China’s overall sports industry, which is expected to reach $187.5 billion by 2050.

Already, China is making preparations for its world visitors. The gold and red paint on the Forbidden City is being retouched, the famous Temple of Heaven is sheathed with scaffolding for massive restoration, parks are under construction and hotels are adding more rooms.

With the games also comes the expectation that participation will increase nationwide for sports in which the country is most successful — that is, aquatics.

The China Swimming Association already anticipates more swimmers and divers in its 10,000 natatoriums and aquatics parks. “In 2008, the Olympics will have a huge impact on the sport, and more people will … want to take part,” says Xiutang Shang, vice president of CSA in Beijing. CSA is promoting the sport in universities and schools by working closely with the various education commissions around the country, and with local sports bureaus to build and maintain pools.

However, China doesn’t have enough facilities to accommodate its huge population. Shang says a lack of pools is the biggest challenge to maintaining successful swimming and diving teams. “More and more people are realizing that swimming is very good for the health … and it’s a very good way of keeping fit, but they can’t find enough pools,” he says.

In response, the government is planning to invest $625 million annually to construct more than 3,000 natatoriums, according to CSA. The Beijing Sports Bureau reports that by the 2008 Olympics, each of Beijing’s 18 districts will add at least one or two more natatoriums. CSA hopes that by 2008, the number of pools nationwide will have doubled. But in a land of a billion people, even that won’t be enough to meet the growing demand.

Already the number of swimmers has increased in the past few years, Shang says. Even young children have started taking swim classes, and some schools have added it to the curriculum. In Shanghai, for instance, 6,000 students will learn to swim through a 15-hour class schedule and formal teaching plan at the schools.

On this day, Shang himself has a wet towel and swim trunks hanging from a wall hook in his office, dripping dry from this morning’s swim at CSA’s competitive natatorium next door. He is excited about the prospect of more Chinese people taking up swimming. More swimmers means more prospective athletes from which to choose. It also means Chinese demand for aquatics is sure to grow.

“There will be great increase in public interest in the sport when people [are] watching the games,” Shang says. “The development of pools and facilities will have a huge impact on the future development of the sport in China. In 2008, both swimming and diving will produce very good results.”