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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

China's biggest goal for the Olympics in Beijing is to win more gold medals than anybody else. Four years ago, China was second only to the United States. Now, the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicts Beijing will beat the U.S. by one medal in the overall count. That's the forecast.

To win the race, Beijing has been concentrating resources on sports that are not its traditional strong suits. And for our Sports in China series, NPR's Louisa Lim got exclusive access to a rising star in one such sport - rowing.

A solitary rower glides along a manmade water course outside Shanghai. Just one sign of China's massive investment in rowing, this site has played a part in Project 119. That's Beijing's plan to target 119 Olympic gold medals in certain sports. One medal hope for the London Olympics, if not this one, is 6'4" Zhang Liang.

Mr. ZHANG LIANG (Rower): (Through translator) I love rowing, and I train to win glory for myself, so I don't find it tiring.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Now the national singles sculls champion, and featured on television, Zhang Liang gets up around 5:00 o'clock every day to train, with another stint after breakfast and another four hours of afternoon training. At 22 years old, he took up rowing six years ago.

He's just one of 2,000 professional full-time rowers paid by the government. National team coach Zhou Qinian explains that Beijing's focus on rowing is because of the 14 gold medals in that sport.

Mr. ZHOU QINIAN (Chinese National Team Coach): (Through translator) Rowing is a major Olympic sport with many gold medals. The more events and gold medals there are, the more we want to compete and fight.

LIM: He's been China's chief rowing coach for three decades. Back in 1978, the team was so badly equipped it had to rent boats from overseas. Now all that has changed. Beijing's thrown money at the rowing team, building a $7 million facility for the Olympics and bringing in a foreign coach too.

But one thing hasn't changed. China's still waiting to win its first Olympic rowing gold. For Coach Zhou, it's more than just a personal quest.

Mr. ZHOU: (Through translator) We sports people want to win glory in the programs requiring great physical strength. For example, no one thought hurdler Liu Xiang could win that gold medal. That was a reassertion of Chinese people's physical strength. And the same is true for rowing.

(Soundbite of competition)

Unidentified Man #2: And that was a huge burst of power from the Chinese.

LIM: China scooped five out of 14 golds at a recent World Cup rowing regatta - more than any other country - showing it's now a force to be reckoned with internationally.

(Soundbite of competition)

Unidentified Man #2: This is a tremendous performance; a real explosion of power.

LIM: But China's rowers know that without a gold this time round, their funding might get diverted to more successful sports. However, team manager Cao Jingwei is confident Beijing will continue with its rowing program, if nothing else because of its 48-member team.

Mr. CAO JINGWEI (Team Manager, China Rowing Team): (Through translator) They can't abandon this project altogether, because 48 people is a huge team. And the U.S. always has a huge delegation. So China wants more and more athletes, regardless of whether they win gold medals, to march behind the Chinese flag at the Olympics.

(Soundbite of TV show)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: All your effort and pain will be for one end: the glory of the motherland. This was the lure for contestants in an unusual reality TV show designed to raise the profile of rowing. The prize: to take part in the Olympic games as the cox who guides the rowing team. Team manager Cao describes why.

Mr. CAO: (Through translator) Of all of the 302 Olympic gold medals, only the coxswain of the eight-person sculls could be your Average Joe, someone without great athletic ability. And we wanted to do this because the gap between Olympic stars and ordinary people is becoming bigger and bigger.

LIM: For Zhang Liang, that gap is painfully obvious. He lives with his team members at the training site year-round. Coach Zhou teases him about how this is hampering his search for a girlfriend. And Zhang Liang shyly admits it's difficult to relate to outsiders. They talk about different things, he says, and their lives are too different. He's idolized by friends and family, and now he must try to live up to their hopes.

Mr. ZHANG: (Through translator) Sometimes it's too hard on my parents. But as Chinese, they'll feel better when they see their child participating in the Olympics on home soil.

LIM: After three decades, Beijing's rowers are under pressure as never before to win that breakthrough Olympic gold. Silver is simply not enough. And for athletes like Zhang Liang, winning gold isn't just a personal mission, it's also an assertion of China's strength.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

INSKEEP: All the same, winning a gold medal requires great personal motivation.

Unidentified Man #4: (Through translator) When I had that gold medal in my hands, I thought it showed my efforts to prove myself among my competitors. Of course, my country had placed great hope in me and after they got the news, I thought, oh, I've done a glorious thing for China, but that was after the fact.

INSKEEP: That Chinese diver won the gold in the last two summer Olympics. But crossing the line from national hero to superstar cost him his place on this year's Chinese Olympic team. Tomorrow Louisa Lim reports that state-sponsored sports and individual marketing power sometimes collide.

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