On the eve of the team's departure from Beijing, host city of the last Olympics, for London, soon to be hosts of the next, Sun Yang, China's great hope for a first men's gold medal in the pool, stood to address his fellow swimmers.
He did not hold back. "I feel like a tough warrior," he declared. "With shield in hand, I am about to go all out. I am ready, London. We are coming. Chinese men are coming!"
Yang, his shield, trunks and goggles plus the rest of the swimming team are now in Bath, wrapped up warm and putting the finishing touches to their preparations to a Games which will test China's true Olympic strength. Four years ago their athletes delivered a performance to match the venues and spectacle of the Beijing Games. For the first time the world's most populous nation climbed to the top of the medal table; an incredible 51 golds were won, 15 better than the US.
It was the best golden return since the 1984 Games when the US, their route to the podium eased by the Soviet bloc boycott, took 83. A more apposite comparison is with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where the host nation won 44 golds. China's achievements in Beijing were immense, but that was a peak that will not be matched. The question is how low will China go?
There were 639 Chinese athletes deployed in Beijing. There will be 396 in London. The host nation always fields armies of athletes – Britain's is the largest team in 2012 – but China's drop in numbers is dramatic. Both the US and Russia will also send bigger teams, and the top spot the world's sporting superpowers covet is America's for the regaining. The drop is explained in large part by the loss of host places and the failure of several of the larger team sports, including football, to qualify.
China's sporting authorities remain hugely ambitious though. After boycotting the Games for 32 years from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics – over the participation of Taiwan – China returned in Los Angeles and has clambered swiftly up the medal table. Sport is still regarded as a means through which the country's image can be presented in a polished, positive fashion, both internally and globally. Success beyond their usual areas – 38 of their 51 Beijing golds came in their traditionally medal-rich sports of badminton, table tennis, diving, shooting, gymnastics and weightlifting – is a key objective and that is where Yang comes in.
"I have no burden on my shoulders," he said on arrival in Britain a week ago. But he does and it's a weighty one. Gold is desperately desired in a sport in which China has a poor record. In the build-up to the Games, Yang has been given membership of the Communist Party. "The Olympics is a war-field without the smoke of gunfire. Fast-tracking Sun's application to enrol in the party will motivate him," an official from his home province of Zhejiang informed local media.
Yang is China's Liu Xiang for 2012. In Beijing the Athens 110m hurdles gold medallist failed to handle the pressure of being the home favourite – and his problems in the build-up to London have done little to erase the suspicion that this is an athlete ill-equipped to cope with the greatest challenges. In the wake of his withdrawal from last week's London Grand Prix, the headline in the People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, said it all: "The unbearable weight of withdrawing."
The good news for the Chinese is that Yang, all 6ft 6in of him, appears made of sterner stuff. Last year he broke Grant Hackett's 1,500m world record that had stood for a decade. It also earned him a world championship gold. He has Games experience as well, having swum at Beijing as a 16-year-old and has since had coaching from Denis Cotterell, the man behind Hackett's domination of the event (and another sign of China's willingness to now look beyond their borders to improve their sportsmen and women – a Frenchman, Daniel Morelon, coaches the women's track cycling squad).
The one question mark over Yang is that most of his success has come in home waters, and then there's the fact that no Chinese male swimmer has ever won a gold medal. London, where he is also fancied to win the 400m freestyle, will be a new frontier.
China's advance in the pool could prove one of the themes in the first week of the Games. Earlier this year Wu Peng beat the mighty Michael Phelps in the 200m fly at the Charlotte Grand Prix, while last year China took five gold medals at the world championship to finish behind only the US.
If swimming medals are a hope, in diving and table tennis they are an expectation. They will come, and in numbers, via the likes of Zhang Jihe and Ding Ning, respectively the men's and women's world No 1. In Beijing China took all six individual table-tennis medals and both team golds too. Since the sport was introduced to the Games in 1988, China has won 20 of the 24 gold medals.
In diving their dominance is all-but absolute, and 2012 may well prove the Games it becomes absolute. In Athens they won six of the eight golds, in Beijing seven of the eight and at last year's world championship it was 10 out of 10. Chinese divers are ranked No 1 in the world in every event. They are the products of a highly centralised, regimented training regime in which divers practice for hour after hour. Crucially, though, it is combined with an open mind to new techniques and coaching innovation.
"The entire world is chasing China," Greg Louganis, the US former four-time gold medallist, told ESPN recently. "It's hard to compete with that. It's a Communist country, that's pretty much all they do, train, train, train. So much of their execution is muscle memory."
The one medal China did not claim in Beijing was the 10m platform, the event in which Tom Daley will compete. Daley has never dived better than in the build-up to the Games, but he will have to come close to perfection to match Qiu Bo, the 19-year-old world champion. Bo's training regime is dedicated even by Chinese standards; his coaches have had to order him to ease off after he suffered a succession of injuries.
The hope for Daley, and Matt Mitcham, the Australian who stood alone among the Chinese gold winners four years ago, is that Bo, not unlike Xiang, has shown the occasional sign of wilting when it matters most. He did so when Daley won the world championship three years ago, and nothing can shield him, or Yang, from the unique pressures an Olympic Games will bring from home and abroad.
On top of the world: China best in Beijing
2008 medals table, top 10:
South Korea 13/10/8/31
Robin Scott-Elliot's predicted top 10 medals table for London 2012:
1. United States
3. Great Britain
6. South Korea
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