There’s always a touch of risk in the air when the USA faces off against China at the Olympics. It’s about power and dominance, influence and money, and no one can really tell where elite sport stops and international relations begin. For the first time since the disintegration of the United States’ eternal rival, the Soviet Union, in the early ’90s, the nation finally has another serious opponent in the battle for top spot in the medals table.
China is now reaping the rewards of years of development work in top-level sports. Athlete training is relentlessly success-focused; only the best of the best are supported by the state. And success is assessed in Olympic medal wins. China got its nose in front at its home games in Beijing in 2008, finishing top for the first time ever. Then, in 2012, the U.S. fought its way back to the summit.
Medals haul 2012
The swimming pool promises to be a particularly intense battleground in the struggle for supremacy this time around. The superpowers’ two champions are American Michael Phelps and China’s Sun Yang.
MICHAEL PHELPS (USA)
Sporting icon Phelps, 31, has already secured his place in the history books as the most decorated Olympian of all time. His 18 gold medals—plus four of another color—make for an incredible record at the Games. Phelps temporarily retired from professional sports in 2012, but he’s gambling on an Olympic comeback in Rio.
Sun Yang (CHINA)
Sun Yang is China’s great swimming phenomenon —and not only because he stands two inches taller than his American rival at 6-foot-6.
The 24-year-old Sun won two golds (400m and 1,500m freestyle) at the 2012 Games, and flies to Brazil as reigning world champion in the 400m and 800m freestyle, following triumphs in Kazan last year.
As Phelps has chosen to focus on shorter distances in Rio, the two are only really likely to face off in a few events. But these are the battles that will decide which country conquers the Olympic pool.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio in Numbers:
- 42 Sports
- 306 Events
- 37 Venues
- 206 Countries