China / Cover Story

Chinese athletes on inside track for medals

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily) Updated: 2016-07-19 07:31

Chinese athletes on inside track for medals
Head coach Maher Thomas talks with members of Chinese women's basketball team during a practice session in Beijing on June 29. The team is aiming for a top-eight finish at the Rio Olympic Games. Zou Hong / China Daily

Although the nation's hopefuls face a tough task as they look to overcome a spate of retirements, the cooler winter climate in Brazil and an 11-hour time difference, experts predict a good overall performance, Sun Xiaochen reports.

Despite the progress China's athletes have made on the track and in the pool, the country's Olympic delegation remains cautious about the chances of a golden haul at the Rio Olympics, citing the challenges of acclimatization and the high standard of competition.

As a traditional global power in events such as table tennis, diving and weightlifting, China has extended its prowess to swimming and track and field, two mainstream events long dominated by Western athletes, and is poised to deliver a more balanced performance at the 2016 Games.

However, the retirement of a number of veterans since the 2012 London Games has affected China's strength in events such as gymnastics and badminton, while the improvement of many foreign competitors presents a number of legitimate threats in Rio.

At a ceremony to introduce the Chinese delegation on Monday, Liu Peng, the sports minister, urged the country's competitors to embrace the challenge with confidence and prepare for the fiercest possible competition in Brazil.

"With the tough competition ahead, we need to prepare to the utmost and prepare for all the challenges in Rio to try to perform our best at the 2016 Olympics," he told the audience.

According to predictions made by Gracenote, a provider of entertainment and sports data analysis, China is likely to finish second in the medal count with 31 golds, directly after the United States which is forecast to win 41. The analysis, based on data collected at the most recent related events, was released as the 30-day countdown to the opening of the Games on Aug 5 got underway.

China will send 416 athletes, the second-largest contingent after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to compete in 26 disciplines. Handball and rugby sevens were the only events for which China failed to qualify, according to the General Administration of Sport of China.

To better adapt to the 11-hour time difference and temperatures far lower than those in China at this time of the year, the Chinese delegation will arrive at a pre-competition training base in Sao Paulo, about 400 km southwest of Rio de Janeiro, at the end of this month to undertake a final tune-up prior to entering the Olympic Village.

High ambitions

Breakthrough performances by Chinese athletes at the recent world swimming and athletics championships have underlined the country's ambition to equal the world's best in major sports.

Motivated by the enthusiasm of the home crowd, Chinese athletes ended the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing with nine medals, one gold, seven silver and one bronze. The country's best-ever result at the biennial event lifted the clouds that had gathered after the retirement of star hurdler Liu Xiang in April.

Led by 26-year-old sprinter Su Bingtian, the men's 4x100m relay team finished a surprising third in the final, but was upgraded to runner-up after the US was disqualified for failing to adhere to the rules governing the exchange of the baton, making history by clinching Asia's first silver medal in the sprint relay at world level.

Su also became the first Asian athlete to reach the 100m final after equaling his national record of 9.99 seconds in the semifinals.

Wang Jianan, 19, became the first competitor from Asia to claim a bronze medal in the long jump at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing, while Gao Xinglong came fourth and Li Jinzhe came fifth, marking the first time that three Chinese athletes have qualified for the final of the event.

The nation's progress in highly physical events has boosted the morale of Chinese athletes for Rio, but claiming gold will remain a hard task, said Feng Shuyong, head coach of the national track and field team.

"Collectively, we've improved in events in which we used to be weak, but we are not dominant enough in events in which we have traditionally been strong to guarantee gold medals. We hope to win at least one gold, in the 20km rack walk, and also win as many medals and register as many personal bests as possible," he said.

Chinese swimmers also showed elite caliber by winning five gold medals, one silver and seven bronze at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, and they are expected to make a splash in the pool in Rio.

Ning Zetao, the men's 100m freestyle world champion, will also participate after a commercial dispute with the national swimming administrative center was resolved. Meanwhile, Sun Yang, who won gold medals in the 400m and 1,500m freestyles in London, has recovered from a foot injury and will try to defend his titles in Rio.

Strengths challenged

Boasting a deep talent pool and advanced training expertise, Chinese athletes have long been dominant in six Olympic events - diving, table tennis, badminton, weightlifting, shooting and gymnastics.

However, the gap has narrowed between China and its competitors, including the US and Japan.

China's once invincible diving "dream team" slipped to silver in the women's 10m platform at the 2015 FINA championships, raising concerns about its prospects in Rio.

The country's once all-conquering badminton teams also face tough challenges, especially the women, after failing to win the singles title at last year's world championships. The attempts of men's star Lin Dan to restore momentum for a record third successive Olympic gold medal will attract worldwide attention.

After the retirements of several key athletes from the four-gold-winning London lineup, China's young gymnastics team will face challenges from mature Japanese and US squads.

Still, team leader Ye Zhennan remains positive that China could potentially win gold in five disciplines, including the men's team all-around, the rings and the women's uneven bars.

"Our young team is low-profile in publicity but remains strong in tackling difficult routines. We are confident of outperforming Japan and the US in our strength events," Ye said.

After claiming all five gold medals on offer at the International Table Tennis Federation's 2015 World Championships in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China's table tennis team appears unbeatable, while the shooting and weightlifting squads still have to test their skills and composure during advanced training camps.

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 Chinese athletes on inside track for medals

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 Chinese athletes on inside track for medals
Yu Song (left) seen during a training session with other members of the women's judo team in Beijing on May 31. Zou Hong / China Daily

 Chinese athletes on inside track for medals
Shen Jingsi, a member of the Chinese volleyball team, during a training session on June 29 in Beijing. Zou Hong / China Daily

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