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“As recently as 20 years ago China and India were nowhere in this sport,” said John Leighton-Dyson, performance director for the British shooting team in Athens. He was trying to come to terms with the fact that one of his charges, Richard Faulds, the defending Olympic champion, had just failed to make the final of the double-trap competition for which China and India provided three of the six finalists. The eventual winner was a member of the United Arab Emirates royal family, who until four years ago was the country's squash champion.
It was a sparsely attended event at the top of a mountain some 40km from the centre of Athens but you would struggle to find a greater symbol of the change in the balance of power in sport, away from the traditional nations, than the final of the double-trap.
Boosted by the hunting tradition, Olympic shooting had been the preserve of Europe, the US and Australia, but no longer.
The gold medal won by Ahmed Al-Maktoum was the first of any colour in the history of the UAE. He missed just 11 of his 200 shots, equalling the previous Olympic record. The silver taken by army major Rajyavardhan Rathore, only the fifth individual reward for India in 104 years of Olympic competition, while Zheng Wang's bronze helped keep his country at the top of the Athens medal table.
“By the time we get to the Beijing Games in 2008 you can bet that China will win half of the [shooting] medals,” added Leighton-Dyson. “Within six months they are scheduled to have three Olympic standard shooting facilities available.”
It would be wrong to read too much into the result of a single final German and Swedish shooters made up the finalists and there were top-12 finishes for Russian and Italian competitors. A Russian last Saturday won the men's single-trap final with an Italian and Australian taking the other medals.
But this is not an isolated case. Japan and especially China are breaking into areas where they have not previously been strong. And in hurdler Liu Xiang China has a serious contender to win the country's first track and field gold in the 110m hurdles.
Earlier this week International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge asked the organisers of the Beijing Games to slow down their building work an unprecedented request in the history of the Games. The Chinese authorities will of course comply. There may be some countries hoping they will also slow their athletic progress.
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