Athens (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Olympic baton was passed to Beijing last night at the end of a Games hailed by IOC chief Jacques Rogge as the "awakening of Asia".
Powerful performances in Athens by China and her neighbours heralded a new sporting era that promised a strong showing by Asian nations at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the International Olympic Committee head said as the Games drew to a close.
"This really is the Games where Asia has awakened, and I believe that this is a very strong sign that Asia will be at full strength for Beijing in four years," he said.
The 16 days of competition ended with a colourful ceremony that continued the "Games come home" theme and was a celebration of Greek culture.
China's capital city put on a short performance filled with a preview of what's to come. Chinese string instruments played and red-clad martial arts performers romped around the stage. Elaborately clad women wearing Chinese opera suites and headdresses walked out on stilts. A giant, red lantern popped up and a young Chinese girl sang the traditional motive "Molihua (Jasmine flower)". At the end a banner was unfurled that said "Welcome to Beijing."
Mr Rogge hailed the "major progress of China", which captured its best-ever haul of 32 gold medals - up from 28 in Sydney and 16 in Atlanta - and held second place in the medals table behind traditional powerhouse the United States.
Mr Rogge lauded the "extraordinary success" of Japan, which tripled its Sydney haul by winning 16 gold medals - equal to its tally at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
He also acknowledged the "excellent scores" of South Korea (9 golds), Thailand (3) and Indonesia (1) as further signs that the world's most populous continent was a force to be reckoned with in the Olympic movement.
However, a senior Chinese sports official played down on August 29 the accolade that China has become a sports superpower despite its success at the Athens Olympics. Speaking with traditional Confucian modesty Yuan Weimin, chief de mission of the Chinese sports delegation, said: "Though China is in second place in the gold medal standings, we are not a sports superpower".
"There is still a considerable gap between us and the United States and Russia," he added.
China has pocketed 32 golds, 17 silvers and 14 bronzes, far behind the United States on 35-38-29. Russia is ranked second on 27-27-38 if overall medals are counted. "We are still comparatively weak in track and field and swimming, two premier sports at the Olympic Games," said Yuan.