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China’s main stock market may have fallen 8 per cent on 08/08/08, but the odds of Beijing’s achieving a historic upset in the Olympics medals table dramatically shortened. For the first time since the demise of the Soviet bloc, the smart money is betting against the US retaining its place at the top of the medal table. In the hours before the opening ceremony in Beijing, bookmakers were deluged by bets anticipating victory for a host country that is anxious to underscore its challenge to the global order with a show of sporting prowess befitting a superpower.

After taking six times more money on a Chinese victory than on a US one, bookmaker Paddy Power on Friday reduced the odds it was offering on Team China from 8-15 to 4-11. This means that a punter who – correctly – bets £11 on a victorious host would receive his stake and £4 back, a return of 36 per cent, down considerably from the 53 per cent that was up for grabs less than a day ago. The odds on the US maintaining its pre-eminence on Friday lengthened from 11-8 to 15-8, a 50 percentage point jump in the potential return.

Punters have abandoned the US with stunning speed. Going into Sydney in 2000, the US was the hot favourite, at 1-6, while China was a 40-1 outsider, behind Russia. Ahead of Athens in 2004, the US was still top dog, with odds of 1-5. Bookies who had blithely taken bets on China at 16-1 had a scare when it unexpectedly finished a close second, just four golds behind the US.

Looking at a possible return of 187.5 per cent in barely a fortnight, some punters will now be tempted to back the US. They should resist the urge and stick with the new favourite. The breadth and depth of talent in Team China is astonishing, from diving and gymnastics to niche sports such as badminton, table tennis and judo. Add to that a home side advantage that counted for about four golds in Athens and in Sydney and could give the Chinese an extra seven in Beijing.

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