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A perilous path to the podium

Head coach Zheng Wei warns Team China faces battle royale to realize medal dreams in Paris

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-22 09:20
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Team China head coach Zheng Wei, pictured at the Hangzhou Asian Games last October, says her players will need to level up their physicality on the Olympic court in Paris. [Photo/Xinhua]

With a tough Olympic tournament fast approaching, China's women's basketball team is pulling out all the stops to go for a deep run in Paris as hoops fans crave more international success.

As perhaps China's only big-ball sports program with a chance of winning a medal at the Olympics, the women's basketball squad is determined to build on its 2022 World Cup silver medal and two Asian titles last year by pushing hard for a podium finish at Paris 2024 this summer.

With damage inflicted by the struggles of the national men's program in recent years, Chinese hoops is in desperate need for a boost that the women's squad is expected to deliver in Paris.

The magnitude of the challenge came into sharp focus on Tuesday after global governing body FIBA announced the draws for the Olympic tournaments. Team China was drawn in Group A with Serbia, Spain and Puerto Rico.

The top two teams from each of the three groups, along with the two best third-place finishers, will progress to the quarterfinals.

Wary of complacency in the wake of the team's continental success, China's head coach Zheng Wei called for a concerted effort from the squad to seriously step up its game.

"There are no easy draws at the Olympics because all the teams that have made it to the tournament deserve to be there," Zheng told Chinese media after the draw ceremony, which was staged in Mies, Switzerland.

"In terms of competitiveness, there isn't a big gap between any of the teams at the Olympics. We just need to work on studying each of our group opponents right away.

"For us to achieve our goal of a deep run, we will eventually have to play all the strong teams, sooner or later.

"Our focus will be on preparing ourselves as best we can and go all out when the real battles begin."

Spearheaded by WNBA combo Han Xu (New York Liberty) and Li Meng (Washington Mystics), Team China pulled off an inspiring runner-up finish at the 2022 FIBA Women's World Cup in Sydney, 28 years after the national team's silver-medal finish at the then world championships, also in Australia, in 1994.

Team China kept the momentum flowing last year by winning a pair of golds — at the Asian Cup in July and Asian Games in October — to reclaim continental supremacy from old rival Japan.

Still, the fast-changing landscape of the international women's game means no team should be taken lightly when the Olympic tournament tips off, Zheng insisted.

"We've been tracking the progress of all the major competitors, particularly teams in Europe, and we know their strengths and disadvantages on paper," said Zheng, a formidable member of the 1994 silver-winning team at the worlds.

"The problem is we have had very limited opportunities to play against them recently, having competed primarily against Asian teams over the past year.

"We need to play them to know them, instead of just analyzing video highlights, and that can help us to better identify where we need to improve. International basketball is more physical and more intense than what we are used to on the continental stage."

Despite having almost secured its ticket to Paris before the match, Team China's crushing 82-50 defeat to Olympic host France in a qualifier at home last month underlined Zheng's concern that, even with WNBA-caliber players on the roster, her squad still lacks hustle for the physical battles that await.

To better prepare for their upcoming Olympic challenge, both Han and Li have decided not to return to the WNBA for the 2024 season, which is scheduled to begin in May, as they focus on training programs with the national team for Paris.

"I really appreciate the Mystics organization's recognition and trust in me. Thanks for the invitation for me to rejoin the franchise for the 2024 season," said Li, who averaged 5.6 points, 1.1 rebounds and 1 assist in 34 games for Washington during her first WNBA season last year.

"However, I've decided to not return any time soon as I am preparing with all my sisters on the Chinese national team for the Paris Olympics as a top priority for my career at the moment.

"Hopefully I can return to the Mystics after I complete my Olympic mission and keep learning and improving with the organization in the WNBA."

According to Zheng, Team China will assemble in early May at its pre-Olympic training camp and will take on strong Olympic rivals Australia, Spain, Serbia and France as part of an intensive warm-up schedule.

"We will be ready when the first game tips off," said Zheng. "It will be an all-out battle and our players will be in top condition."



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