China 'upgrade' to Olympic mainstream events

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China rode a wave of success in niche sports to top the Olympic medals table for the first time in 2008 -- but now, they're looking to extend their reach.

Four years ago in Beijing, 38 of the hosts' 51 titles came in table tennis, badminton, diving, shooting, gymnastics and weightlifting, the six Olympic sports China has long dominated.

But in London, China will look for breakthroughs in other events, including swimming and track and field, as they seek not only to replicate Beijing, but to build on it.

While officials shy away from predictions, the unspoken aim is not just to stay top of the gold count, but also to win the most medals overall. In 2008, China had 100 medals, to 110 for the United States.

"The Chinese athletes have now had an additional four years of training in the exceptional facilities that were developed to prepare for the 2008 games," said Rett Larson, of US firm Athletes' Performance which is working with China.

"Therefore, anyone would expect their medal count be one of the best, possibly the best, performance in 2012. To exceed 51 gold medals and 100 overall would be very special."

According to state media, China has hired foreign coaches in basketball, swimming, synchronised swimming, fencing, women's field hockey, track and field, taekwondo and water polo in the build-up to London.

It's an extension of the model for Beijing, when China's much-criticised, rigorous sports schools, which select and groom medal contenders from a young age, were successfully enhanced by foreign expertise.

To improve on Beijing, the Soviet-style sports system has extended its reach to new disciplines, spending big on world-class coaches, new facilities and modern training methods.

Nowhere have such efforts been more apparent than in swimming. National team coach Yao Zhengjie is setting his sights on up to four gold medals in the London pool, four times the number won in Beijing.

Leading the charge will be Sun Yang, who smashed Grant Hackett's 10-year-old 1,500m world record last year and ranks number one in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m. No Chinese man has ever won an Olympic swimming title.

"I hope I can become the first Chinese male swimmer to win the Olympic gold," said Sun, who is among a group of Chinese swimmers who work in Australia with Denis Cotterell, former coach of the legendary Hackett.

Besides Sun, Ye Shiwen, Zhao Jing and Jiao Liuyang won women's world titles in the 200m individual medley, 100m backstroke and 200m butterfly respectively.

China's men also appear primed to medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay, while Liu Zige will look to defend her Beijing title in the women's 200m butterfly.

In athletics, China looked to American doctors to repair the achilles injury which took defending 110m hurdles champion Liu Xiang out of the Beijing Games. Liu also does much of his training in the United States.

In June, he equalled the world record in a wind-aided 12.87 seconds against top competition in Eugene, Oregon, proving he is back in top form.

Besides Liu, Zhang Wenxiu is favoured to win gold in the women's hammer, while Wang Zhen is among the world's best in the men's 20km walk.

Chinese journalist Norman Li said China also had medal chances in taekwondo, judo, women's water polo, women's volleyball, women's beach volleyball and trampoline, in which they have numerous world champions.

"China will do quite well again in the six main sports," Li, who follows China's Olympic Team for Internet portal Tencent, told AFP. "But I believe we also have some other chances to win medals or even gold medals."

Athletes' Performance, which has had success in American football, baseball and European soccer, is a prime example of how China has drafted in help from abroad, and is positive about the country's prospects.

Larsson, the company's Beijing-based project manager, said much of the work was concentrating in athletes' individual needs and preventing overwork or "blind" training, in which all competitors were given the same drills.

"The Chinese athletes are unrivaled in their dedication to skill training. Each of these athletes lives a life dedicated to becoming the best they can possibly be," he said.

"The Chinese coaches are even more committed to success."

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