BEIJING, August 13, 2008 -- China has pulled out all the stops to win the Olympics gold-medal count, investing in specific events and incubating potential champions in a Soviet-inspired sports system in which child athletes eat, drink and sleep sports from as young as age 6.
So when gold medal hopeful rower Zhang Liang, China's national single sculls champion, didn't show up for his race on Saturday, it was a source of consternation.
Turned Up for the Wrong Heat
Zhang's conspicuous absence cost China two opportunities for gold medals. It is likely to adversely affect his coaches and their jobs -- and tarnish his career for good.
At 6-feet-4-inches tall, Zhang, 22, is a star among approximately 2,000 professional full-time rowers supported by the Chinese government. Zhang has been rowing for six years, training for up to eight hours a day at government-sponsored training facilities.
"He thought he was in the next heat," Wei Di, the director of China's water sports governing body, told Xinhua, China's state-run news agency.
Zhang apparently thought he was in the third heat of the single sculls but was actually entered in the second. And the two heats were 10 minutes apart, so Zhang was not on the water at all.
"This shows we still have some problems in team organization," Wei said.
Because he missed Saturday's heat, Zhang was also disqualified from the men's double sculls event that followed later in the day. Zhang's absence cost his teammate Sui Hui the opportunity to qualify.
According to anthropologist Susan Brownell, author of "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China," there will likely be serious consequences for Zhang's coaches for missing the race.
"The chain of command should've gotten him to the race on time," Brownell, a former athlete, told ABC News. "It's really not the athlete's responsibility. There is a whole team and I think those are the heads that are going to roll."
So far, the public's reaction to Zhang's absence has been subdued, if not unaware.
"They are going to be, as the Chinese say, 'scolded.' Net-izens are just going to ream on it," Brownell predicted.
As for Zhang himself, the official repercussions of missing his race -- and shots at two Olympic gold medals -- are less severe.
"I think the consequence for him is that he lost the chance to win a medal and the benefits that come with that," Brownell said.
In previous Olympics, China has never won a gold medal in rowing. But that doesn't mean the country isn't aggressively pursuing the top of the podium. In fact, rowing is one of Team China's highest priorities.
Rowing is an integral part of Project 119, a strategic initiative to prepare China to win more gold medals. The plan was launched shortly after Beijing won its bid for the 2008 Olympics in 2001.
The "119" refers to the number of gold medals given out at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in sports of track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing, canoeing and kayak. In Sydney, China won one medal in those sports, total. China was second to the United States in the 2004 Athens medal count by only four golds.
China has worked tirelessly to improve its chances in areas where the gold medals are up for grabs. Their work is beginning to pay off. In June, the Chinese took home five of the 14 gold medals in the Lake Rotsee World Cup regatta. Canada and the United States won two golds each.
"In general, the Chinese are coming through where they notoriously used to crack under pressure," Brownell said.
Olympic rowing has 14 medals up for grabs, including Zhang's single and double sculls events.
Not the First Time
This isn't the first time an Olympian has missed a competition. "Historically, this happens and it's easier than you might think," Brownell said.
At the 1972 Munich summer Olympics, American Rey Robinson was favored to win a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. His coach told him his quarterfinal heat was slated for the evening when, according to another schedule, his heat was in the afternoon. Robinson missed the race and was disqualified from the Games.
Other athletes have missed races on purpose out of fear that they will test positive for doping. Brownell, a longtime sports expert, listed myriad of possibilities.
"They want to avoid starting because they know they're going to get tested," she said. "Normally, [worried athletes] claim they're injured or false start or have food poisoning."
Does the Race Go On?
China's national team has not commented on the rowing absence, continuing to accumulate gold medals in other events including women's team gymnastics and diving today.
But what if winning the gold medal count for China comes down to one gold medal?
Brownell worries for Zhang: "The man would be a villain the rest of his life."
Zhantao Yang contributed research to this story.