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Youth movement spurs China's Olympic hopes

  • Story Highlights
  • China investing in training athletes for 2008 Olympics
  • Sports observers say 2008 Olympics host country aiming for medal supremacy
  • China fielded young Olympic team in 2004 to prepare for 2008, observers say
  • Chinese sports officials remain reluctant to make public medal predictions
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By David Evans
For CNN
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Spare a thought for Alex Hua Tian -- just 18 years old and the weight of a nation's expectations heaped high on his young shoulders. The Hong Kong-born event rider has yet to qualify for a place in the Equestrian competition of the XXIX Olympiad, but already he is being touted as one of China's gold medal hopefuls.

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Hong Kong's Alex Hua Tian, seen this past August, hopes to be China's first equestrian Olympic competitor.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that the as-yet unqualified Hua is China's only horse-riding hopeful. And if he does compete, he will be the country's first-ever competitor in this event.

So is the youngster under any pressure? If he is, his father isn't telling. "Absolutely not," says his father Hua Shan. "He enjoys it and he's doing well at the moment."

Athletes such as Hua will be of increasing importance for China. As the host nation of the 2008 Olympic Games, onlookers believe that China will be looking to score a personal best in the medal standing against arch rivals Russia and the United States next year. After securing a record 32 gold medals (from a total of 63) in Athens three years ago, putting it in the unprecedented second place behind the United States in the medals table, China is likely to be pushing for even more gold at next year's Games.

While medal success is almost guaranteed in the arenas of table tennis, badminton, judo, diving, shooting, gymnastics and weightlifting, the country is hoping to pick up some additional medals in events in which historically it hasn't had a strong track record. Surprise results at Sydney in 2000 in the hurdles, tennis, wrestling and canoeing has given China impetus to look beyond its traditional strongholds.

"If [China] thinks it has a chance of winning gold in a sport it hasn't had much success in ... the past, it'll put in effort, money and resources," says Beijing-based Yi Jiang, staff writer at Sports Illustrated magazine China. "And that's what China is doing now as it prepares for the Olympics."

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A good chunk of the money that China has been spending has gone on international coaching talent. Consider:

  • A Serb, Vladimir Petrovic, is now managing the men's football (soccer) team, while a Swede, Marika Domanski Lyfors, is currently managing the women's football team;
  • The synchronized swimming team now has Japanese national Masayo Imura as its coach;
  • South Koreans are coaching China's men's (Kim Sang Ryul) and women's hockey teams (Kim Changback);
  • As for basketball, a Lithuanian (Jonas Kazlauskas) is at the helm of the men's team, while an Australian (Tom Maher) is running the women's team.
  • In a country with a state-sponsored sports program where training starts almost as soon as a child can walk, China is also banking on its large pool of younger talent to boost its medal hopes. Of the 407 Chinese athletes competing in Athens in 2004, 323 were making their Olympic debut.

    The decision to drop seasoned athletes in favor of younger talents in Athens was partly in order to groom them for the Beijing Games -- and it appears to have paid off. The average age of the team back then was 23.3 years. Now, with four more years under their belts, these rising stars, many of which are still under 30, are now in their prime.

    But just because China is trying to gain a foothold in less mainstream sports doesn't necessarily equate to competition success, points out Tim Noonan, a sports columnist with the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong.

    "[The Chinese] are playing so many sports now that the fish-out-of-water story that everyone has written about the Chinese playing golf or baseball, it's kind of passe because they are making a conscientious effort to get involved in all sports," Noonan says.

    "But that doesn't necessarily make them good. If you look at the recent soccer Asian Cup, they were disposed of pretty quickly. At least the basketball team is successful in Asia, but the football team is not even good in Asia."

    With around 100 or so athletes still to book their spot at next year's games alongside the 448 already conformed, officials and pundits are reluctant to make any medal total predictions.

    Adding to the weight of expectation for athletes competing in the sports where China has failed to enjoy sparkling success is something called the "119 Project" -- an initiative launched by the sports ministry to build strength in the one-third of Olympic sports where China is weakest. (The project maintains the same name despite the fact that for 2008 the number of sports has risen to 122).

    However, recent comments from Cui Dalin, China's deputy minister of sport and vice chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee, suggests the project may have fallen short of expectations and, instead, China should be competing to dominate second-tier medal winning nations rather than its old foes.

    "We have been backward in these sports for a long time, and our training methods and levels are undeveloped, Cui said. "We have put in the effort but have not made big improvements. Another problem is that we have already bought out full potential in such advantageous events as diving, table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, shooting and weightlifting in Athens. There is little room to improve on the results in Beijing."

    Despite Cui's call to curb unrealistic expectations on the nation's young athletes, there remains a huge amount of pressure on them to contribute at China's unofficial coming out party.

    Among those that will be under the spotlight are Li Xiaoxia and Guo Yue in table tennis, Wang Xin in gymnastics, Lu Yong in weightlifting and Liu Tianyou in shooting. Liu Xiang was the surprise winner of the 110-meter hurdles in Athens and the 25-year-old athlete is expected to repeat his performance in front of a home crowd.

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    But it is this kind of pressure that could in fact be the country's Achilles heel, warns Noonan.

    "I think there's an enormous amount of pressure on them to come through because really, this is not just the Olympic Games, this is the official coming out party for the new Chinese empire. The stakes are extraordinarily high." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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