Chinese facing home pressure

To be a Chinese athlete at these Olympics you need two things - nerves of steel, and to win.

So consider the cases of shooter Du Li and weightlifter Chen Xiexia. The women were vying to win China's first gold medal in Beijing. Time was of the essence.

Du, defending her 10m air rifle Athens title when she also won China's first gold, bombed at the last, finishing fourth, a mere one point off the winner. Afterwards, interviewed on Chinese television, she dissolved, tears streaming down her cheeks, inconsolable.

"I wasn't fully prepared for the pressure of competing at home," she said.

For world champion Chen it was a different story. With one lift, she broke the Olympic clean and jerk and total records in the 48kg division. Joy unconfined.

And as she hefted the bar above her head, China's campaign to top the medal table had begun. By the end of that opening day, another shooter, Pang Wei, had won the host's second gold.

The margins of success and (relative) failure are paper thin for Chinese athletes here.

There is a line going about that a gold is worth 1000 silver medals and China are determined to go one better than Athens four years ago when they finished second to the United States on the gold medal table.

The US bagged 102 medals, 36 gold, while China pocketed 32 golds among 63 medals. Russia were third with 27 gold in an overall haul of 92.

The Chinese are nothing if not proud and their nation is watching. In a sense this is a coming out party for China, and there is a national resolve to ensure it is a roaring success.

When the giant Gao Ming led China on to the basketball court to face the United States on Sunday night, there were unreal expectations of victory. Crowds gathered and remained glued to the set for the duration.

When you watch the Chinese watching the Chinese you can just about see fingers crossed behind their backs.

Officially, Chinese officials have been playing down talk of topping the medal table.

"We hope we can do better in Beijing [than Athens] but it's very difficult for us to achieve this target," Zhang Haifeng, spokesman for the Chinese Olympic Committee said. "Our athletes will do their best."

In May, researchers at Sheffield University in England crunched their numbers and tipped China to top the table with 46 gold medals.

It is a no brainer that there are certain sports in which China will figure prominently.

In Athens, they won six diving medals. They've already bagged the women's 3m synchronised springboard title. After Guo Jingling and Wu Minxia received their medals Guo said in best state-speak: "We are very happy to win the glory for China at the Olympics."

When the table tennis and badminton events get to the sharp end, expect China to be dominant.

They are hot favourites to win all four table tennis golds. They have won every gold bar one covering the Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Games.

"Chinese people have greater expectations for us at the Beijing Games than ever before," China's coach Liu Guoliang said.

There has been rapid progress in areas China are not traditionally strong. They are in the hunt in rowing. Wrestling and canoeing could also produce medals.

China sent a youth-accented team to Athens. For them, there is a sub-text: Athens was preparation for Beijing. Time to deliver.

Late yesterday, the US led the table with 12, followed by China on 10. The race promises to be close, and fascinating.

This story was sourced from The New Zealand Herald