Perched in Tiananmen square in the centre of Beijing at the top of the steps leading to the Museum of China stands a giant rectangular digital clock.
Less than a month after the conclusion of the Athens Olympics in August the public timepiece started the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Games, the third edition of the world's most spectacular sporting extravaganza to be staged in Asia.
The 2004 Olympics, staged in the country which invented the ancient and revived the modern Games, were acclaimed as a stunning success for a myriad reasons. China had more to celebrate than most, finishing second only to the might of the United States in the medals table.
China are comparative newcomers to the Olympic movement. A lone sprinter travelled to the 1932 Los Angeles Games. A team from the mainland representing the new People's Republic of China arrived at the 1952 Helsinki Games five days before the closing ceremony, allowing time only for one swimmer to take part.
Then came the long years of isolation as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised teams from Taiwan as the official representatives of China before the political climate changed and a squad from the mainland took part in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Los Angeles the second time around represented the breakthrough in international sport for China at a Games weakened by a Soviet bloc boycott. The first title of the Olympics was won in the men's free pistol event by Xu Haifeng who was presented with his gold medal by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. In all, China won 15 golds to finish fourth in the medals table.
Progress was steady. At the 1996 Atlanta Games China, with all the world present, were again fourth. In Sydney four years later they were third. Then came Athens and 32 gold medals, only three behind the United States.
Recognition of the Chinese prowess in Athens was rapturous back home and generous elsewhere, albeit tinged in some quarters with a certain wariness about just what the 2008 Games might mean for the rest of the world.
"China's performance in these Games," said Samaranch's successor Jacques Rogge, "make this for me the awakening of the Asian continent. We see a lot of work and investment being done in sport in China and other Asian nations."
One of the Athens champions was men's high hurdler Liu Xiang, China's first men's Olympic gold medallist in track and field, the glamour sport of the Games.
Liu, a former high jumper who turned to the track, equalled the world record in the 110 metres hurdles final, relegating Terrence Trammell to second place in an event traditionally dominated by Americans.
"My victory has proved that athletes with yellow skin can run as fast as those with black and white skin. This is a miracle but I believe a lot more miracles will take place in China," said Liu."
Lamine Diack, the Senegal-born president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), does not believe in miracles.
"People say Asians can't sprint," said Diack. "That's absolutely wrong. Two thirds of humanity are in Asia. When they're organised and prepared it will be difficult to beat them. China knows the most important sport in the Olympics is athletics. They are planning for it. China isn't a country, it's a continent."
Sport in China has a long and diverse history, unlike any other in the world. The China Sports Museum in the southeastern corner of the National Olympic Sports Centre contains six exhibition halls displaying 5,000 years of sports culture from 56 ethnic groups.
Hunting, archery, rowing and wrestling were practised in ancient times. In winter there is evidence of skating, skiing and sleigh races.
Yet essentially China remained isolated from mainstream western sport, including the past century when most of the world's popular sports were devised or codified.
A decade ago Chinese were serious contenders in only a handful of sports, primarily gymnastics, table tennis, diving and weightlifting. In Athens their successes were spread over a much greater range and the Chinese competed in every sport apart from equestrianism and baseball. They plan to compete in all 28 Olympic sports in 2008.
"China is not yet a sporting superpower," said Yuan Weimin, director of the State Sports General Administration. "This is because unlike some countries, such as Australia where sport is an integral part of life, in China only about 30 percent of the population regularly takes part in sporting activities."
Which is where sports schools such as Shishahai come in. The spartan regimes are patterned after the old Soviet and East German models, with talent scouts plucking the tiny athletes from kindergartens.
"Some might attribute China's Olympic success to its growing economic might, stemming from the government's sweeping economic liberalisation since the 1980s," John Li, a business professor at Suffolk University in Boston wrote in the International Herald Tribune. "Those glimmering Olympic medals are more a product of Soviet-era central planning rather than Deng Xiaoping-style laissez faire.
"To a large extent, China's current success is attributable to the fact that it is the only significant survivor among the Communist countries that traditionally used the state planning system to produce Olympic medals."
Not only outsiders feel uneasy about five-year-olds being separated from their parents and subjected to days packed with sport and study starting at 6.30 a.m. and finishing at nine p.m.
Vitaly Smirnov is a former president of Russia's Olympic Committee. After the Sydney Games he expressed his reservations to the Izvestia newspaper.
"In many ways, it was a cruel system which maimed lives, a system which is only possible in a totalitarian state," Smirnov said. "However the system yields results and we should be prepared for not Americans and not Russians but the Chinese to win the next Games."
After Athens, the Olympic team were feted in a week of celebrations. Liu sang "I miss you" in a karaoke performance on national television. The team were praised by President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.
At the same time, preparations forged ahead for 2008. The 100,000-seat national stadium has been nicknamed the "Bird's Nest" because of its complex arrangement of metal girders. The 17,000 capacity National Swimming Centre is designed in the shape of an ice cube. Such is the progress that Rogge has been compelled to issue a warning, unimaginable at a similar stage before the Athens Games.
"For the first time in my Olympic life I've had to tell an organising city to slow down," he said.