China Sets Its Sights on Winning Gold Medal Count

Lightning quick and agile, Zhang Kai was hand-picked by a school sports coach to play ping-pong before he'd even turned 6. Now 11 years old, he lives and trains at one of China's top sports schools, and only occasionally sees his parents.

"I miss home at times, but I'm used to it now," he said.

Ping-pong remains the most popular sport in China and one the Chinese routinely dominate in the Olympics. At the Shichahai Sports School, the kids practice for up to three hours a day, all hoping to be the next Olympic champion.

Ping-pong competitors are among the 400,000 athletes now training at more than 3,000 sports schools around China designed to produce Olympic champions.

Badminton player Zhang Rui said she saw the school she attends as an opportunity to reach her personal Olympic aspirations.

"I can fulfill my dreams here," she said.

But maybe even bigger than Rui's dreams are the dreams of the Chinese government to win as many gold medals as possible. Chinese officials are trying to rival the United States and other Olympic powerhouses in the gold medal count, with home court advantage.

To win, China made a calculated investment to steer athletes toward events that award the most medals, such as canoeing, with its 16 gold medals.

"We only count gold medals," said He Yi, the deputy director of Competitive Sports Departments in the Beijing Sports Bureau. "We don't have specific goals for other places."

Chinese athletes feel more pressure to win to bring glory to their nation and pride to the country. While all athletes may share these sentiments, the pressure on the Chinese is amplified, since they are competing at home.

"We are the host city of the host country," He Yi said. "For athletes here, that's even more encouragement to do well."

But there have been allegations that China has been cheating to increase the chances of winning gold medals.

The gymnast He Kexin, a favorite to take the gold in the uneven bars, is said to have been born on Jan. 1, 1994, making her only 14 years old. The minimum age for Olympic eligibility is 16, but in gymnastics, younger athletes often have the edge because they are smaller, lighter and often more fearless than older competitors.

The government is making a large financial investment in the Olympics, even beyond the infrastructure for the venues. Chinese athletes who win gold medals will not only gain fame, they will be awarded prize money.

"If you win a gold medal, the government will provide a relatively high financial allowance," He Yi said. "This way, when they go to college or retire, the government has provided a guarantee."

Liu Xuan, who won a gold medal on the balance beam at the 2000 games in Sydney, and is now a pop music star, said that her Olympic triumph validated all of her hard work and devotion to the sport.

"Every time I face obstacles now, I look back at my training, and they don't seem so tough," she said.

One of China's most famous track stars, Liu Xiang, said the entire nation is pressuring him to deliver a gold medal.

"I will try my best, but I still have to live after this period," Xiang said. "I think that when I retire, it will be better."

At the gymnastics training facility, the athletes train very seriously -- when ABC News visited the facility, there was not a smile to be seen.

"Not even a little crooked is OK!" the coach joked.

But while some athletes win fame and fortune, the sacrifice doesn't pay off for most competitors, who have few other prospects if they don't bring home the gold. Unlike in the United States, where many Olympians also attend college, Chinese athletes have few opportunities to fall back on -- winning is the only game in town.

ABC News' Jo Ling Kent contributed to this report.