TO REMINISCE about the ole gymnastics factories with legendary coach Bela Karolyi is to look into his tank-gray eyes and see an Iron Curtain embroidered with roses. The Soviet bloc wasn't all bomb shelters and Red Squares. As the Beatles sang, "The Ukraine girls really knock me out."
That was about the time of Bela's heyday in Romania, when state-run sports systems in Eastern Europe were suspected of doping athletes into Olympic dominance. Karolyi is not an advocate of chemistry, but in a misty moment at the Beijing Games he grows wistful for the rigid control he once had over pixies like Nadia Comaneci in the 1970s. "No question about it: The centralized system is the most efficient. Period," Karolyi says. A smile bends beneath his chalk-dust-colored mustache as he becomes more animated. "That was practiced in old times, in Soviet, in Romania," he says. "No one was even close to us back then."
Does might make right? In the 17 years since the Big Red sports machine disintegrated with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has flexed its freedom muscle at the Summer Games, dancing beneath paper moons and tinfoil stars from Atlanta to Athens. Wasn't that sprinter Maurice Greene grooving with the American flag as his toga in Sydney? So it had to be jarring for a few folks in Fargo last week to hear U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth declare American athletes the "underdogs" in Beijing.
Betsy Ross blasphemy, right? Most experts have declared America the medal count fave. Yet the USOC is expending considerable effort diminishing expectations for one unsettling reason: If the 2,008 wickedly precise drummers in the opening ceremony weren't a hint, China is coming. Be afraid. Without a government sugar daddy—needing mom, pop and NBC to support its athletes—the USOC knows that its perch atop Mount Olympus is vulnerable to a centralized system that empowers Chinese authorities to pluck children for sports, effectively enrolling the tykes into summer camps that, well, last for entire childhoods.
Given that Michael Phelps will not compete in land events, U.S. Olympic officials fret over a fall, not so much in Beijing but in the future. Proud sponsors of Team USA—just like college boosters and political donors—are obsessed with vanity giving. We're No. 1 is something to brag about. We're No. 2 sounds like a cheer at a pencil factory.
China is not the only nation going cold war retro with its sports spending. Russia and Germany have returned to pouring vast resources into athletics. "Governments around the world are ramping up their investments," says Susan Brownell, a former track athlete in the U.S. and China who is a research scholar at Beijing Sport University. "The U.S. is about the only one that has not."
This is the U.S. And this is us. Our sense of superiority gives us the false belief that we're the world's trendsetter. As Brownell explains, "You have to ask, Why haven't we been paying attention to the changes [in sports]? In the larger, more reflective picture, we're not fully engaged unless it's on our terms."
Global-warming charts don't move us. We're a nation of rubberneckers. We respond to jolts—like gas at $4 per gallon. Only the shock of losing would shake the U.S. Olympic strategy. Then what, though? Sending Cindy Lou Who to a government-run work camp for medals? With a deep laugh, Karolyi exclaims, "Can you imagine American families handing over their little ones to such a system?"
However, they do hand them over to Camp Karolyi, a.k.a. the Women's National Team Training Center, run by Marta Karolyi, Bela's wife. On the outskirts of Houston, at a place visited regularly by tumbling dreamers, tiny bones are broken, bruises are formed and Olympians are taped together for the medal stand. With historically lofty TV ratings for women's gymnastics as an indicator, America seems to be O.K. with pixie pains. "What we did—and we're very proud of it—we developed a semicentralized program," Bela says. "It's the first in the world. I introduced it in 2000. Kids get to live at home and enjoy the family environment, and we still have a centralized guidance."
This is far from a government design, but when described by Bela, Camp Karolyi sounds like a song off an eight-track from The Best of Communism. It's a tempting old tune—imagine a demanding Karolyiesque strategy for every Olympic sport—but it's one Americans cannot play. We stood on principle as No. 2 behind a Red Machine once in the cold war. We can do it again amid a culture war.
If you have thoughts about the direction of the U.S. Olympic team, send them to SI.com/pointafter.
The USOC is diminishing expectations for one unsettling reason: As the 2,008 wickedly precise drummers in the opening ceremony suggest, China is coming.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER