Golden chances to bring gold home
Just days to go before the Olympics 2004 begin in the home of the Games, Athens, the Chinese contingent is warming up.
For the Games mean a lot to China, who reaped a record 28 golds in Sydney four years ago and who in four years' time get to host the world spectacular.
Speculation and prediction have scaled heights as the first, major batch of 407 sporting hopefuls and 226 coaches and officials landed in the Greek capital yesterday.
Playing down strings of triumphs last year, in which only sporting giants Russia and the US could do better, Chinese officials would not be drawn to make over-confident forecasts.
"It would be hard for us to do better than Sydney because we outperformed ourselves four years ago," said Li Furong, deputy chef-de-mission, when the delegation was set up late last month.
China aims to come third after Russia and the US in the final medal tally.
"We are trying to win at least 20 gold medals in Athens," said Li yesterday. "It will be difficult to win as many as we did in Sydney, but 20 golds is the bottom line and if we do better than that, then that's great."
Away from the popular gold-abundant disciplines of track and field and swimming, Chinese athletes keep their dominances on the familiar fields, where they are looking stronger than before.
The frontier sport is the national pastime of table tennis, where they have collected all the gold medals at stake in the past two Olympic Games.
Since the sport was introduced to the Olympic agenda at the 1988 Seoul Games, Chinese have won 13 of 16 golds. Led by world and Olympic champion Wang Nan and Kong Linghui, anything less than another sweep will be seen as a failure.
Alongside them will be national shuttlers who are expected to grab another treasure chest.
They stunned the badminton world when an inexperienced squad collected four gold medals out of an available five in Sydney. This is likely to happen again.
National gymnasts are expected to equal previous performances, headed by 14-time world champion Li Xiaopeng.
Li, a three-time title winner at last year's Anaheim world championships, is going for a gold triple in the team event, parallel bars and horse vault.
If he succeeds, Li could become the most successful Chinese gymnast ever, beating legend Li Ning.
The same attention will be paid to the national shooting squad, who have taken home gold medals in every Games since China's debut in 1984, in Los Angeles.
Coached by China's first Olympic champion, Xu Haifeng, the squad is now seen as one of the world's best and is gunning for three golds.
But there is no shiny prospect for the diving team, dubbed "Dream Team" for its achievements in the past.
The growing number of world-class divers from other countries could shatter the team's long-time dominance in the sport. In last year's Barcelona World Swimming Championships, the team lost all titles on individual events - something that has rarely happened before.
Spearheaded by Olympic champion Tian Liang and world champion Guo Jingjing, the team has set a modest goal of winning four golds out of the total eight.
But for the weightlifters, it is not a matter of "can", but "who".
Announcements of the squad had to be postponed because of internal politics among the women.
Athens tickets have finally went to world record breakers Li Zhou, Chen Yanqing, Liu Chunhong and Tang Gonghong, who all have the ability to take home the top prize.
In the men's, two-time Olympic champion Zhan Xugang, who has come back from retirement, is trying to make it a third triumph.
In the more popular events of swimming, track and field, men's hurdler Liu Xiang and women's breaststroke specialist Luo Xuejuan, the two internationally-acclaimed young sporting stars, are eyeing their first ever Olympic golds.
There are other golden opportunities in sports like cycling, fencing, rowing and canoeing, women's volleyball, women's field hockey and women's softball.
Alongside the gold contenders are China's hopes for the future, and officials are sending as many as possible in a bid to warm up for the 2008 Games in Beijing.
"We hope our investment in the Athens Games will lead to a success in the Beijing Games," said Li.