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September 7, 2000
China to dazzle on the tableTan Ee Lyn in Beijing
China's table tennis powerhouse expect to sweep all four gold medals at the Sydney Olympics to duplicate their feat at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Chinese coaches say the top two men veterans, Liu Guoxiong and Kong Linghui, have been working on carefully crafted new techniques because their play has been analysed thoroughly by opponents in the years following Atlanta.
That year, Liu took the men's singles title and teamed with Kong for men's doubles. In 1999, Liu became the first man to hold the Olympic, World Championship and World Cup titles at the same time.
For all their wizardry, however, caution is the watchword.
"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.
"We have had to create new techniques in our play. Yes, they will show some new techniques."
Backed by an intense state training programme, China have produced countless generations of table tennis world champions and dominated the world in a discipline regarded as a national sport and precious part of the Chinese heritage.
The national team retreated to their base in Hebei province at the end of July for 40 days for more training and fine-tuning. "We are confident about defending our golds," Huang said.
"But we are not complacent. European standards are very high, like those of South Korea, Sweden, Belarussia, Columbia, Germany. There are at least 10 formidable opponents."
Liu, famous for his consummate skill, tactics and concentration, suffered a humiliating three-set loss to little-known Joo Se Hyuk of South Korea during the World Club Championships in early June.
Kong, whose father is a table tennis coach, strained his right shoulder during a match in the United States in July, but Huang said that wouldn't be a problem.
"There will be time for him to tune himself up at home. There shouldn't be any big impact," Huang said.
Missing from the women's table tennis in Sydney will be the spectacular play and style of the great Deng Yaping, who swept all the golds on offer in Barcelona and Atlanta before retiring in 1997.
Under tremendous pressure to fill Deng's shoes and that of her doubles partner Qiao Hong are first-time Olympians Wang Nan and Li Ju, currently ranked world number one and two.
Second-liners Yang Ying and Sun Jin are also on the team.
"This batch is different. It's younger, has potential for golds. But if you talk about experience, they are certainly not as mature as Deng Yaping," said women's coach Lu Yuansheng.
Wang inevitably gets compared with Deng, and is sometimes criticised as lacking in power and aggression. Nevertheless she captured four golds at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok and won all three titles at the 1999 World Championships in the Netherlands.
Among China's main opponents are Chen Jing, China's 1988 Olympic gold medallist who defected to arch-foe Taiwan. In Atlanta, Chen took second place, after Deng.
Other adversaries are South Korea, Germany, Japan, Romania.
Talking about the immense psychological pressure, 24-year-old Li Ju told Reuters: "At that level, everyone is excellent."
"What's important now is the mind and concentration. I treat the smallest competition as the biggest, so that I won't be so nervous in a big competition. If we treat small ones lightly, we will crack under the pressure of huge competitions."
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