BBC SPORT | Olympics | China 'to top Games medal table'
China is being tipped to end the reign of the United States as the leading Olympic nation at the Beijing Games.
Research undertaken by Sheffield Hallam University predicts the hosts will win 46 gold medals in the Chinese capital.
"China has set its stall out to become the number one nation in sport and to top the table in its host event," Professor Simon Shibli told BBC Sport.
"We are forecasting China will win 46 gold medals, which probably exceeds most other people's forecasts."
China is the most populous country in the world, with approximately 1.33 billion people, compared with the 305.8 million of the US.
Professor Shibli analysed past Olympic performances, China's record in turning bronze and silver medals into gold ones, and recent success on the international stage to reach his conclusions.
He also plotted the likely effect, the considerable sums of money and resources being pumped into its sporting development programme by the Chinese government would have on the country's medal haul in Beijing.
Professor Shibli said conservative estimates indicated the Chinese government had spent billions of pounds ensuring its Olympians were in the best possible shape when the Games start.
"Value for money and costs per medal become of secondary importance to actually winning," he said.
China first entered the Summer Olympic arena in 1984, winning 15 gold medals in the heavily boycotted Games in Los Angeles.
For a nation to be continually improving, in the case of China to double its gold medals from 16 in Barcelona to 32 in Athens, is really quite unprecedented
Professor Simon Shibli
At the 1988 Games in Seoul, China won just five golds - the same number as Great Britain - but since then its performances have improved dramatically.
China won 16 golds in both Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996) to finish fourth overall, before moving up to third in Sydney with 28 and second in Athens with 32.
"Its improvement from the Seoul Olympics in 1988 to second place and 32 gold medals in Athens is unprecedented," said Professor Shibli.
"For most nations, it is a great achievement to hang on to what you already have.
"So for a nation to be continually improving - in the case of China to double its gold medals from 16 in Barcelona to 32 in Athens - is really quite unprecedented."
Professor Shibli's research actually indicated China would win 39 gold medals in Beijing, but his team felt home support would secure the host nation a further seven.
Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia took gold in the 3m synchronised final
"It is a top-end estimate, but that is what the data is telling us," he added.
"If China were to achieve 46 gold medals, then, in the current climate, that would be more than enough to top the table."
But not everyone agrees with the results of the research.
The highly respected Luciano Barra, the former head of the Italian Olympic Committee, has predicted the US will win 45 gold medals in Beijing to top the table ahead of China, who would get 40.
As for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), it said it had not made any predictions for Beijing but admitted the host nation was favourite to top the medals table.
"The USOC has not made medal projections or set medal goals for this Olympic Games," a spokesman told BBC Sport.
"That said, America's athletes recognise just how challenging the competitive environment will be, and they are preparing with this in mind.
"While China is clearly the favourite, the USOC is confident Team USA will rise to meet the competitive challenges in Beijing."
The US has finished top of the medals table at the last three Olympics, thanks chiefly to the dominance of its athletes and swimmers.
What China is trying to do is broaden the base of sports in which it wins medals
Professor Simon Shibli
"China and the USA achieve their success in radically different sports," explained Professor Shibli.
"The USA typically does very well on the track and very well in the pool - and these are two areas in which China, traditionally, has not done very well.
"What China is trying to do is broaden the base of sports in which it wins medals. Quite often these are sports which are not particularly high profile."
China has been investing heavily in most of the Olympic disciplines ahead of Beijing and already boasts a strong record in diving, having won six golds in Athens.
It also picked up five in weightlifting, four in shooting and three in both badminton and table tennis.
Kelly Holmes won two of GB's nine gold medals at the Athens Games
In contrast, the US claimed 12 golds in the pool alone, with another eight coming from its athletes.
The Americans finished up winning 36 golds in Athens, just four ahead of China, with Russia third on 27.
As for Great Britain, they were 10th with nine, two less than they won in Sydney.
However, Professor Shibli thinks Team GB could reach double figures again in Beijing thanks to National Lottery funding and the London 2012 factor.
"All of the evidence suggests we have reasons to be positive," he said.
"We've been investing since the changes in National Lottery funding regulations to support athletes and national governing bodies.
"The evidence we have indicates that in the run-up to being the host nation, the would-be host tends to do better than it has in previous editions
"Given that we won nine gold medals in Athens it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume we'd do something like 10 to 12 and easily get a place in the top 10."