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China's best Olympic hopes in London

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
updated 8:19 PM EDT, Fri July 27, 2012
Liu Xiang will aim for his second gold medal in London's Olympic Games when he runs the 110-meter hurdles. Liu Xiang will aim for his second gold medal in London's Olympic Games when he runs the 110-meter hurdles.
HIDE CAPTION
Liu Xiang, hurdler
Sun Yang, swimmer
Li Na, tennis player
Lin Dan, badminton player
Zhang Jike, table tennis player
Ren Cancan, boxer
Guo Ailun, basketball player
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China will be watching to see how London's Opening ceremony compares with Beijing's
  • London Olympics officially opens Friday to a global audience of billions
  • Chinese fans will be paying close attention to several top sports stars
  • China doesn't expect to match the medal haul from the Beijing Games in 2008

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- When the Olympic torch lights up in London on Friday, hundreds of millions of TV screens, laptops and mobile phones will likewise be turned on in China.

Chinese sports fans are expected to watch the world's best athletes compete for medals and fame at the 2012 Summer Games.

Hardly any Chinese expect London to be able to match the spectacular opening ceremony that Beijing choreographed four years ago.

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"They will get the job done but it definitely won't be as good as China did," said Ling Ling, who works for CCTV, the national television network. CCTV plans extensive coverage of many events, including live broadcast of events featuring Chinese athletes.

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"The Chinese care about the scale of the ceremony," said Jiao Xueqing, a 48-year-entrepreneur in Beijing. "The British care about the spirit of the Olympics."

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Chinese athletes carry the burden of their huge nation's hopes and expectations.

Who among China's superstars can excel and live up to the Olympic motto -- Faster, higher, stronger?

I consulted David Yang, a writer at Sports Illustrated China who also serves as editor of the blog site China Sports Review, and we came up with seven athletes worth watching in London.

Liu Xiang

The 29-year-old 110-meter hurdler will aim for his second Olympic gold at the London Olympics. Liu's shocking pullout from the Beijing Olympics remains one of the most memorable events of the 2008 Games. The nation watched aghast as Liu limped off the track after a false start by another runner and pulled out of the competition.

Liu later publicly apologized to the Chinese media, saying he could "do nothing but pull out of the race" because of the recurrence of a foot injury.

"Liu is just coming back from injuries and he proved he can still fly eight years after winning gold in Athens," David Yang tells me. "When I interviewed him last summer, before the World Championships, he seemed really self-confident and had gotten over the Beijing memories."

Sun Yang

Sun Yang, 20, is the lanky world champion who is leading China's 50-member swimming team to London. Sun is China's hope for a gold medal in swimming, just as Liu Xiang was in track and field eight years ago.

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"No Chinese man has ever won a swimming gold medal in the Olympics," Yang noted. "Sun broke the 10-year-old record in 1500m freestyle last year."

Li Na

Li Na, 30, is the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles (2011 French Open). The tenacious tennis star is idolized by millions of her compatriots, but Li's maverick streak may also be worth watching. Chinese sports officials reportedly asked Li Na to play doubles as well in London, but she balked, saying she has not played doubles in years and would rather focus on her singles event.

"London will be her last Olympics and it'd be interesting to see whether the late-bloomer can give us another surprise," Yang said.

Lin Dan

Lin Dan, 28, is perhaps the best badminton player in the world. Nicknamed "Super Dan" by his fans, Lin is a four-time world champion, five-time All England champion and the reigning Olympic champion. To defend his title, he may have to face again Lee Chong Wei, the Malaysian star who beat him earlier this year.

"To Chinese badminton fans, the Lin-Lee matchup will be the most anticipated event," said Yang.

Zhang Jike

Zhang Jike, 24, is the reigning table tennis world champion and World Cup winner in singles. Table tennis, or ping pong, no longer enjoys the attention it got 40 years ago, before China opened its door, but it is still widely considered by many in the Chinese media as "guo qiu," or the "national ball game." Millions of Chinese play and watch ping pong.

Zhang is the latest superstar coming out of China's most competitive sport. "He has won every major tournament in singles except the Olympics and Zhang's toughest rivals may be one of his teammates," Yang said.

Ren Cancan

Ren Cancan, 24, is a policewoman and top amateur boxer. Ren is a three-time world boxing champ but she may be better known lately for the controversy about her age.

Ren admitted recently that her actual birthdate is April 26,1986, making her 26, and not January 26, 1988, as had been registered with the international boxing association. The age discrepancy is unlikely to bar Ren from the London Olympics but her frank admission again puts a spotlight on cheating by some Chinese coaches and officials accused of tampering the age of athletes just to win titles and medals.

"To take her first Olympic gold, Ren needs to beat Mary Kom, the five-time world champion from India who carries the hopes of another one-billion nation," opined Yang.

Guo Ailun

Guo Ailun, only 18, is a fast-blooming point guard of the men's basketball team. Although still green and prone to turning over the ball, basketball fans and commentators hail the emergence of stars like Guo.

"He represents a new generation of players that may look less freakish than Yao Ming but could be more entertaining on the court," said Yang.

The big question... how many medals can China win?

Since China is sending a relatively "small" team to London -- nearly 400 athletes, compared to 600 in Beijing -- Team China will be hard pressed to match the 51 gold medals and 100 total medals that it hauled four years ago.

Team leader Xiao Tian acknowledges the challenge.

"We made a calculation that in the last five Olympics, the host country has a reduction of 32% of gold medals and medals in total won at the next Games," Xiao said. "We don't think we will have the same amount of medals as in Beijing. But the Chinese delegation will do its best."

With no home-court advantage, Yang said, "I think 32 golds and 95 medals should be more like it."

Given the time difference between London and Beijing, will Chinese sports fans stay up late at night to watch Olympic events?

"I hope to see the great performances by our Chinese athletes," said Xu Lin, 24, who works in a real estate company in Shandong.

Others say they will surely tune in but only selectively.

Tang Sen, a septuagenarian pensioner and a self-described qiu mi (sports fanatics) enthused: "I will stay up to watch the events I like and the athletes I admire, whether or not they win gold medals."

Taking part, after all, is more important than winning, as another Olympic motto goes.

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