entering the final weekend, Chinese athletes are far behind their pace for gold in the last two Olympics -- and in real danger of coming in third in the standings behind Great Britain.
At one level, the system worked handsomely, culminating in China's record haul of gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But even at its zenith, the central factor that made that success possible -- a large pool of parents desperate for better opportunities for their kids -- was disappearing.
Over the last five years, rural incomes have grown faster than urban incomes, while China's falling birthrates -- and greater economic opportunities -- mean that Chinese parents are less willing to gamble their child's future on the slim chance of Olympic success. The impact on China's sports schools has been debilitating. As of May, there were 2,183 sports schools in China, producing 95 percent of Olympians. While that might sound like a lot, in 1990 there were 3,687 such schools. In just one sport -- table tennis -- enrollment has declined 75 percent since 1987.