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Page last updated at 21:23 GMT, Sunday, 10 August 2008 22:23 UK

World powers in basketball clash

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Two days after the start of this summer's games, China and the United States went head to head in the basketball arena.

China's Yao Ming and the US' Chris Bosh during the US-China basketball game

It was a contest between two nations that compete in so many other arenas - for natural resources, political influence and financial gain.

And if either side needed any extra incentive, political leaders from both countries watched on from the sidelines.

Sports fan and US President George W Bush, in China to see the opening of the Olympic Games, took his seat alongside Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Over the last few days, during a tour of East Asia, Mr Bush has criticised China's record on human rights and religious freedom.

He did it again on Sunday after attending a religious service in Beijing.

Talking about China's control over its churches, the US president said: "No state, man or woman should fear the influence of loving religion."

But if China's foreign minister was annoyed by Mr Bush's comments, he was too diplomatic to show it at a basketball match.

He chatted happily to the US president and, like a good host, handed out bottles of water to his American guests.

Sat in ordinary seats, it was only the presence of burly security guards that marked these very important people out from the rest of the crowd.

Soaking up the atmosphere

This contest was eagerly anticipated in China, where basketball is a popular sport. It is just one of many North American inventions admired by the Chinese.

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But home fans were expecting defeat even before they braved driving rain to get to the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium.

"Of course, China will lose. I'm just here for the atmosphere," said Yu Peng, who was attending the match with his wife.

Eighteen-year-old Guan Xuetong - an avid basketball fan - said the same before he went to find his seat among the crowd.

The high-school pupil said he was there because it was a historic match.

"My classmates have asked me to take some pictures for them," he said.

But even before the game got under way, there were signs that these Chinese fans were hoping their team could overcome the odds.

Basketball fan Guan Xuetong and his mother
Even if they did not fancy China's chances, fans said they came to see a historic match
"Go China," shouted a woman selling Chinese flags for 10 yuan ($1.50) as fans trickled in with the national colours draped around their shoulders.

And when the game got under way, there was no doubt this was a partisan crowd. Their star is Yao Ming, a 2.29m (7ft 6in) giant who plays for Houston Rockets in the US.

There was a giant roar when he put the home side ahead after just 40 seconds.

After that, every Chinese point was cheered - as was every US mistake.

The biggest roar came when China levelled the score at 29 points each.

But it was not to be China's night. They eventually lost 101 points to 70, the US ascendant - as it is in so many other spheres.

As they trudged off home after the match, Chinese fans did not seem unduly disappointed.

"It was a great experience," said one, still sporting a Chinese flag painted on the side of his face.

He no doubt believes that his team - as well as his country - will only get stronger.




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