BEIJING — With the Olympic Summer Games hitting their halfway point Sunday, everyone from elite athletes to millions of Chinese was fixated on one thing: Medals, as in who's got the most of them.
The medals obsession has long been a central part of the games, and China's 639-athlete delegation, the biggest of any country's this year, has had reason to celebrate.
The Chinese have pulled ahead of the pack by winning 35 gold medals as of Sunday night, 16 more than the second-place U.S. delegation. The United States still claimed the highest total medal count, at 65, four more than China.
Sports analysts expect the gold medal race to tighten this week, as Chinese athletes head into sporting events such as track and field and BMX cycling that they're less dominant in. On top of that, U.S. basketball, softball and other teams that have brushed past the competition so far are expected to play in gold-medal winning final games.
Even Chinese sports officials warned Sunday that their fortunes would likely change over the coming week. So far, the Chinese have won 24 of their gold medals in four sports - diving, gymnastics, shooting and weightlifting.
"In various parts of the second half of the games, we do not boast of sporting events where we have the advantage," said Cui Dalin, secretary general of the Chinese Sports Delegation. "Many of our teams are of inferior quality, and our gold medal-winning pace is expected to slow."
U.S. Olympic Committee officials voiced less optimism, however, saying the Chinese have already pulled off several surprises, including winning the bronze medal Sunday in the women's marathon and a fencing gold medal last week in men's individual sabre.
Since 2000, the Chinese government has poured millions of dollars and hired foreign coaches to develop world-class athletes especially in medals-rich sports. As the hosts, Chinese athletes have also automatically qualified in some events and played before supportive crowds.
"You have to look at what China is doing with their sports program," said Steve Roush, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Relying on what countries' traditional strengths are to predict results is something you can't do this year."
Despite official Chinese caution, many in this 1.3 billion-person country have already begun celebrating.
Checking the medal count several times a day has become a national pastime here, and at least one cellular phone carrier sends text messages to millions of its customers whenever a Chinese athlete wins a gold medal. For Chinese fans, gold medals are the only ones that matter.
"If our athletes win the most gold medals, that means our country is a great power," said Beijing resident Fay Ou Yang, who's been closely tracking the medals race. "Individual accomplishment and national accomplishment are the same."
The Chinese aren't the first to place such patriotic weight on the medals race, with political ambitions regularly spilling into the sporting arena since the Olympics began more than a century ago.
During the Cold War, the United States wrangled bitterly for medals with the Soviet Union and its satellite countries and often came up short against rivals trained in centralized sports schools similar to the current Chinese program.
The United States came in third in the medal count, for example, at the 1988 Summer Games held in Seoul, Korea, when the top medal earners were the Soviet Union and East Germany. Those two countries, despite their sporting victories, imploded by the time the 1992 Summer Olympics began in Barcelona, Spain.
"During the Cold War, medals were a big deal because we were fighting surrogate wars with our rivals," said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. "Here, there's not that kind of rivalry between the Americans and the Chinese, which means the U.S. focus hasn't been as intense."
Worldwide medals scrutiny, however, remains strong, and even a bronze medal for a small country sets off public celebration. The Web pages of newspapers all over the globe Sunday prominently featured medals won by their country's athletes.
The Canadian delegation suffered the brunt of the medals obsession last week, when lackluster performances sparked fierce criticism back home. Canadian athletes bounced back Sunday by winning one gold and two bronze medals in rowing and another bronze medal in swimming.
"There's been a lot of questions and concerns about our results, but we're watching this until the end," said Canadian Olympic Committee spokesman Steve Keogh. "Our focus now is on excellence. We're definitely here to win."
For U.S. swimmer Margaret Hoelzer, what really counts for an athlete is pushing one's personal best. Which isn't to say gold medals aren't welcome.
"I just got a silver and bronze medal, and there's no way I think it's not a great accomplishment," Hoelzer said. "I'm my worst enemy in a way. I don't need medals to push me to perform."