Olympics 2008: China readies for the show

Like many of the post-80s generation from China, Olympic champion Liu Xiang makes no bones of his intention of earning more.

updated: December 27, 2007 17:52 IST
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Like many of the post-80s generation from China, Olympic champion Liu Xiang makes no bones of his intention of earning more, but he prefers to leave nothing to chance in defending his Olympic title next year.

The 24-year-old, who keeps the world record of the men's 110m hurdles at 12.88 seconds, is now among over 1,000 elite Chinese athletes taking part in the behind-door winter training program in build-up for the upcoming Beijing Olympics on home soil.

"Winter training will be closed and I'll be cut off from the outside world," Liu said.

Liu, whose status as the pin-up boy of Chinese athletics has brought lucrative corporate endorsements and mobs of fans wherever he goes, also said he would be cutting out all public appearances in the run-up to the Olympics.

"I'll definitely not be participating in any commercial activities next year. My whole being will be devoted to preparing for the Olympics," he said.

The State Sports Administration of China (SSAC) has forbidden all the athletes to take part in the commercial and social activities since the end of the 2006 unless they have permission from the governing body.

"It (winter training) is time to overhaul the whole training system, enhance the performance, improve on weak points and keep injuries under control," said SSAC director Liu Peng early November.

"The Beijing Olympic Games are just around the corner, now it is wartime," he added.

While sports officials found themselves under pressure and are reluctant to make any medal predictions, average onlookers believe that China will be looking to dethrone the United States in the medal standing at next year's Beijing Olympic Games.

China stacked its 407-strong team at Athens with young athletes to groom future champions, and the squad still easily surpassed its modest goal of 20 golds, taking a best ever 32 golds for an unprecedented second place in the medal count, only three golds shy of the United States.

The gold medals came not only in the traditional Chinese domains of table tennis, badminton, gymnastics and diving but also in men's track and women's tennis.

Powerhouse Russia had to settle for third with 27 golds.

With the nation's 2008 expectations heaping high on the athletes' shoulders, China's sports officials chose to play low key.

"The United States got 31 gold medals from track and field and swimming world championships this year, showing their prowess in those two biggest storehouses, where China has little hope of gold medals except for Liu Xiang's 110m hurdles," SSAC vice director Cui Dalin said in November.

"As for Russia, they had won gold medals in 64 sports in the past three years, which is a lot more than we did."

The exact number of gold medals Chinese athletes had won in 2007 has yet to be totalled, but the advantages are still maintained in table tennis, badminton, diving, shooting, gymnastics and weightlifting, which earned a total of 20 golds for China three years ago.

The Chinese athletes failed again to enjoy sparkling success in their weakest sports, namely track and field, swimming and aquatics.

These sports were listed in the "119 Project" - an initiative launched by the SSAC after the Sydney Olympics, referring to 119 gold medals from the three sports, accounting for one-third of the total gold medals (The project maintains the same name despite the fact that for 2008 the number has risen to 122).

Chinese swimmers came back home without a single gold from the Melbourne world championships in March while hurdler Liu was the only gold medallist from China at the athletics world championships in Japan, casting a shadow over the preparations for these bonanza sports.

"We have been backward in these sports which have been dominated by the United States for a long time, and our training methods and levels are below bar. We have indeed put in much effort but it did not come to fruition," said Cui, suggesting the project may have fallen short of expectations.

"We think the United States and Russia will maintain pole position in next year's Olympics, and China will be competing to dominate second-tier medal winning nations," he added.

Four years is a neither long nor short time -- not enough to groom a talent from scratch, but enough to refine current ones.

While China is hoping to pick up some additional medals in fringe events in which historically it hasn't had a strong track record, some medal successes are almost guaranteed in the traditional strongholds.

The diving team, which took six out of eight golds in Athens, is one of the "dream teams" in China's Olympic squad.

"Ten of our 14 divers, competing in the world championships in Melbourne, had their international debut there," said Li Hua, director of Swimming Administrative Center.

The divers grabbed nine out of 10 golds on offer in Melbourne 2007, with men's 10-meter platform as the sole nick.

The Chinese gymnastics team, who only took one gold for China at the Athens Games, continued their comeback these years, managing five golds in the 2007 world championships in Stuttgart and winning a record eight golds at the 2006 world championships in Aarhus.

The team pulled off a less sparkling performance compared with the previous year due to tough-routine tactics, but Huang Yubin, Chinese gymnastics head coach, said he would continue to produce more complex routines ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games.

"In terms of our Olympic preparations, mistakes make us even stronger as our weaknesses came into spotlight and we still have time," said Huang. "Errors that cost us world titles were much welcome ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games."

According to Huang, Chinese gymnasts would continue to lift the difficulty of their routines for a higher 'A' mark than opponents.

"Our team is in better shape than it was a year ago as far as the Olympics are concerned."

The drivers and gymnasts were joined by other ace athletes, bringing home more world titles in 2007 and also keeping more Olympic qualifying tickets coming for China.

According to official statistics released in November, a total of 514 athletes of 26 sports including 211 events have qualified for the competitions in the Beijing Olympic Games.

"China is expected to field 550 to 570 athletes for 2008, the largest ever delegation to any Olympic Games," Cui told Xinhua, "and hopefully they won't let the people down."

History shows that host nations always get higher than normal gold medal count because of the fervor to do one's best in front of home crowds and the national prestige to be an Olympic champion.

However, what the Chinese diving team leader Zhou Jihong worries about is whether her divers can overcome the greatest ever mental stress as being a host of the Olympic Games.

Zhou, women's 10-meter platform champion at the 1984 Olympic Games, admitted that mental stress could be a fatal factor for the Chinese divers if they falter.

"It could be the two sides of a coin. Being a host does not necessarily go with more advantages and titles. It can be disadvantages, especially to the events like diving, shooting and gymnastics," she said during the national championships in September.

According to a survey conducted by the Chinese shooting team recently, all the host teams suffered a slump in the sport on their home turf during the previous Olympic Games.

World champion hurdler Liu, who remains China's best hope of track gold next year, also admitted he felt the pressure of expectations.

"People want me not only to win a medal, but to get gold. This kind of pressure is indeed very heavy," Liu has said on several occasions.

"After all, there are currently many outstanding athletes in the 110m hurdles. Any of them could be Number 1."

In sports like diving or shooting, even some routines of everyday life could cause a disaster.

"A phone call or a chat from the family members before the event takes place, athletes may lose concentration and feel overloaded pressure. It may make for unstable performance," Zhou said.

Her ideas were shared by SSAC deputy director Cui.

"Everyone thinks that host athletes enjoy huge support but it can be pressure too, especially when our advantageous events are those events which need steadiness and delicate techniques," he said.

The SSAC has been bringing in psychologists to help athletes cope with the pressure of competing on home soil, according to Cui.

And for the diving team, a Yoga course has been added recently to the divers' Sunday schedule in bid to loosen up the athletes' nerves.

"There are many ways to help divers improve their mental stability and consistency during daily life. I hope they can put the stress aside and perform their best in front of home crowd at the Beijing Olympic Games, " Zhou said.

Zhou pointed out that both veterans and inexperienced rookies have the same mental stress problem.

"The Olympic Games is different from other big world meets, and it is being held in China. The pressure is everywhere. I can't prevent my athletes from the reality. What I can do is to help them become physically and mentally strong," Zhou said.