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September 12, 2000
Monks and models greet ChinaAndrew Browne
Depleted by "suspicious" blood tests, and without disgraced track coach Ma Junren, China's main Olympic squad arrived in Sydney on Tuesday to be greeted by monks, models and flag-waving children.
Two male weightlifting stars, one a world record-holder, pulled out of the team at the last moment, adding to a long list of Chinese no-shows.
Last week China dramatically axed 40 athletes and coaches, including six out of seven members of the "Ma Family Army" of long-distance women runners, citing a variety of reasons including "suspicious" blood tests.
Australian media have speculated that China sacrificed some its medal prospects to avoid a drugs scandal in Sydney that could derail its bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
Deputy team leader Li Furong appeared to acknowledge the upheavals had taken a toll.
"The most important thing now is to boost the team's confidence," he told reporters at the airport.
Leggy Chinese models, mixed with saffron-robed Buddhist monks and scores of schoolchildren from Sydney's Chinese community greet the 279 members of the team, including 255 athletes, who arrived aboard a chartered flight.
"Warmly welcome," the children chanted.
Scuffles broke out when Hong Kong reporters desperate to get close to the team were held back by security guards.
The athletes were hustled into a fleet of waiting buses before journalists could reach them.
China is sending a total of 284 athletes to the Games. Gymnasts, the women's soccer team, sharpshooters and archers arrived earlier.
Chinese sports officials are publicly saying they are confident the team will perform at least as well as the one that brought home 16 golds from Atlanta in 1966 and placed fourth overall in the medals table.
But their chances were dealt a new blow by the abrupt withdrawal of weightlifter Shi Zhiyong, a world record-holder in the 62 kg class, and teammate Ci Wenhua, a winner of the 108 kg class at the 1997 World Championships.
Chinese state media said on Monday the two medal hopefuls pulled out because of injury.
Zhou Wenzhong, China's ambassador to Australia, said the last-minute surgery to the name list "shouldn't make much of an impact".
"We still hope to get between 16 and 20 golds," he said.
Commenting on China's apparent determination to be squeaky clean at the Games, where a new dope test has been introduced, Zhou said: "The government's policy is very clear -- no one should have any doubts".
Deputy squad leader Li said that a Chinese sweep of four golds in table tennis "will be difficult".
But China has high hopes that its all-conquering men's gymnasts will snatch the team gold in a sport dominated by the Russians for a decade. The team captured its fourth consecutive men's world championship last year.
Controversial coach Ma was bumped from the squad last week after he and his team abandoned a high-altitude training camp on the Tibetan plateau that had been visited four times by drugs inspectors.
Chinese sports officials have long been sceptical of Ma's claims that his success with previous world-beating runners was the result of secret herbal potions and turtle's blood.
Beijing is widely considered a front-runner to host the 2008 Games, although Paris has made an impressive charge. Beijing was narrowly beaten by Sydney for the 2000 Olympics.
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