August 9, 2000


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China face uphill battle in Sydney

Plagued by injury, indifferent form and the latest in a string of doping scandals, China's beleaguered Olympic team face an uphill battle to meet an official target of 16 gold medals at next month's Sydney Olympics.

With just over a month until the start of the Games, coaches and athletes are playing down China's medal hopes and shifting the media spotlight away from swimming and athletics to focus on more marginal events like cycling and women's weightlifting.

Hopes of a gold in the pool in Sydney were effectively dashed last month when World champion Wu Yanyan was kicked off the team and banned for four years after failing a drug test.

Wu, World champion and World record holder in the women's 200 metres individual medley, tested positive for an anabolic steroid at the Chinese national championships and Olympic trials in Jinan in May, where she was the only outstanding performer.

China will also have to compete without Le Jingyi, the only Chinese swimmer to win a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Le, who won gold in the 100 metres freestyle and silver in the 50 freestyle in Atlanta, decided only two months before the Jinan qualifiers to try for a third Olympic appearance. By then it was too late to get in shape and she failed to qualify.

'With our standards now, securing even one gold medal is very difficult,'' head coach Zhao Ke said in a recent interview.

"There is not one event where we are ranked world number one. For our swimmers to contribute gold medals to China's entire Olympic team is quite difficult.''

On the track, China's hopes rest heavily on unpredictable and irascible coach Ma Junren and his team of women middle and long distance runners.

China will send seven members of the ''Ma Family Army'' to Sydney to compete in the 800 metres, 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres.

Ma's runners were the only notable performers at national trials in Jinzhou in June, sweeping the medals in the 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000 metres.

The team also competed at the Paris Golden League meeting in the same month, picking up one first place and two seconds.

Ma came back from Paris in subdued mood.

''We saw so many good runners on our European trip that winning a gold will be hard for us,'' state media quoted Ma as saying. ''We got to know our position in the world on that trip.''

An underwhelming track team were weakened further by the withdrawal of Asian Games 100 metres champion Li Xuemei last month due to a recent lack of form after a brace of injuries.

Li, the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games gold medallist, clocked 10.79 seconds at China's National Games three years ago.

''To enter the 100 metres final in Sydney was my biggest dream. It will be the regret of my life to lose the chance this time,'' state media quoted her as saying.

Shang Xiutang, secretary general of the China Athletics Association, has said China aims to win just one track and field gold in Sydney, the women's 20 km walk.

But doubts were raised over their chances in that event too after Liu Hongyu and Wang Yan, first and second at the Seville World Championships last year, both pulled out of the event in Jinzhou after just a few kilometres. Their coach blamed fatigue.

Injury has also depleted the Chinese diving team, who were expected to win at least five golds in Sydney.

Huang Qiang, a favourite to win the men's platform synchronised event, injured himself during training and is likely to miss the Olympics, according to state media reports.

China's powerful table tennis team are aiming to repeat their gold medal sweep although their leading players were off form at the U.S. Open last month.

Men's world singles number one Kong Lihui and Olympic and World champion Liu Guoliang both crashed out of the singles competition and women's doubles aces Wang Nan and Li Ju lost out to Taiwan rivals in the final.

Liu and Kong will also have to add new tricks to their repertoire for Sydney.

''They are at a disadvantage. They will be the natural target and their techniques would have been fully understood by now by our opponents,'' said Huang Piao, leader of the Chinese team.

The women's soccer team, silver medallists in Atlanta and runners-up at last year's World Cup, also face a tough battle after drawing top-seeded Norway, Nigeria and the United States in the first round.

"We'll have to take it game by game because everyone in our group is a potential champion,'' said team captain Sun Wen.

State media have been critical of the team for failing to even reach the finals of three major competitions this year -- the Gold Cup, Algarve Cup and Pacific Cup.

The string of injuries and sub-standard performances has increased the pressure on China's gymnasts, badminton players, and women's weightlifters to top up the medal tally.

China will field the same power-packed men's team who took the team title at the World Championships in Tianjin last year, and they are determined to steal the Olympic team gold from Russia.

''We definitely have the confidence and we definitely have the ability to get the men's team title if there are no mistakes. That is not a problem,'' said Zhang Jian, China's top gymnastics coach and vice-president of the Chinese Gymnastics Association.

"For our entire team, men and women, we should get two, three gold medals or more.''

China will send four women weightlifters with the aim of a clean haul of four golds in the sport's Olympic debut.

''Certainly we have the confidence (for four golds). The pressure is undoubtedly huge as China has been getting good results in women's weightlifting for so many years,'' said chief coach Zhang Wenxi.

Chinese women weightlifters hold world records in the 48 kg, 58 kg, 69 kg and 75 kg classes.

Mail Sports Editor