Shooting: Du hits target with shot at redemption

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The Independent Online

She was supposed to have won the first gold of the Beijing Games, the one that would launch the great Chinese gold rush. But then, the morning after the firework fest of the opening ceremony, Du Li, the defending champion, world number one and red hot favourite in the women's 10m air rifle, wilted under the welter of national expectation. She finished fifth and left the Beijing Shooting Range Hall in floods of tears, a patently broken woman.

Today the pony-tailed darling of Chinese sport had a shot at redemption: her secondary event, the women's 50m rifle three positions event. She did not miss. This time she wept tears of joy on the very same shooting range. The sparkle was back in her eyes, switching on the megawatt smile that was supposed to light up the Beijing Games from event one on day one.

Du, a student at Shangdong University of Technology, had not got the first gold of these home Games but the 76th. It was the 20th in all for the burgeoning machine of the Chinese team, putting them halfway to their target of 40 midway through the sixth of the 16 days of competition in the Chinese capital. In Athens four years ago they won 32, finishing four short of the USA in the medal table. By close of play in all of the sports contested yesterday, China's Olympic gold stock had risen to a tally of 22. The US had ten.

In all, including silver and bronze, the hosts have 35 medals now. When China won the right to host the 2008 Games, back in 2001, a state programme was launched with the aim of putting the People's Republic at the top of the Olympic medal table for the first time in history. It was called Project 119, the number referring to the overall medal target. It has cost five billion yuan (£381 million).

Times have changed since Liu Changchun became China's first Olympic athlete in 1932, a one-man team financed by the head of his university. He finished last in the heats of the 100m and 200m and had to beg for his fare home from members of the Chinese community in Los Angeles. It was only in the Los Angeles Games of 1984 that China won her first Olympic medal, a gold in the men's free pistol shooting event.

That chunk of precious metal was claimed by Xu Haifeng, a former "barefoot doctor" and chemical fertilizer salesman. It now stands on display in the National Museum of China. Xu was once asked if he would trade it for another ten. "Absolutely not," he replied. "That gold medal is a milestone of China's Olympic development. It is part of history."

Du Li had her fifteen minutes of fame as the winner of the first gold medal of the Athens Games four years ago, in her specialist shooting discipline, the10m air rifle. It earned her four years of mounting pressure as the one citizen in a nation of 1.3 billion expected to deliver the opening gold of the Beijing Games. There will be countless other stories of triumph over all manner of tragedy in the course of these 29th Modern Olympic Games - some of them of a sporting nature, others drawn from that strange place known as the real world. Few, though – if any – will involve a journey through quite the same kind of emotional ringer from which Du emerged with a beaming, golden hue yesterday. Her five day odyssey has been a revealing snap-shot of the strain being applied to the cogs of the mighty Chinese machine – the kind Liu Xiang will have to bear when steps on to the track in the Bird's Nest Stadium on Monday to open the defence of his 110m hurdles crown.

It seemed fitting that Kip Keino, one of the all-time greats of all sports, was in the Beijing shooting hall yesterday to present Du with her just reward. As she stood on the top of the medal podium, tears watering her eyes, the massed ranks of home supporters in the stand stamped their feet, clapped their hands, and chanted in rhythm: "Du Li, Du Li, Du Li…"

It was all so very different last Saturday. On that occasion, there were gasps of shock from the audience as Du's aim went awry and a funereal silence descended when the competition reached its anti-climactic conclusion. The crowd shuffled away in silence and Du dropped her head on to the shaft oh her rifle in utter despair. "I wasn't fully prepared for the pressure of competing at home," she mumbled in a television interview, before breaking down and attempting to cover her crumpled, streaming face as she hurried through the gauntlet of reporters asking her to further articulate her raw disappointment. "I really can't imagine the kind of pressure she's been under," Katerina Emmons, the gold medal winner, confessed.

Back in Du's hometown, in Yiyuan county in Shandong province, a lavish celebration party prepared by the local authorities fell embarrassingly flat. After watching the action on television screens, officials made a hasty departure, leaving Du's mother – who ran a tiny breakfast stall to support her daughter's shooting dream - to face the media in an otherwise empty hall decked with banners which hailed "The Pride of Yiyuan."

There were gasps again yesterday when Du's trigger finger twitched on the first of the ten shots in the final of the 50m rifle three positions. Leading from the morning qualifying round, she fired an 8.7 and dropped from first to third in the standings. By the third shot, though, she was back on top. The Pride of Yiyuan, and of China, had rediscovered her Midas shooting touch. Her nerve and her aim never wavered thereafter. Du finished with a flourish, shooting a 10.8 and a 10.5 for a final tally of 690.3 points. The broken woman of last Saturday had broken the Olympic record.

The crowd erupted and so did Du's emotions. "I cried on Saturday, after the 10m air rifle, not because I failed to get the gold but because I let so many people down," she confided later, the glint in those sparkling eyes as golden as the gleaming medal which hung around her neck.

"To me, the four days between the two competitions felt longer than four years. In the practice session today I did not perform well and I thought of giving up. But then I thought of the many people who had given me messages and postcards and I thought I could not give up. This is why I was moved to tears today."

Tears drops amid a flood of Chinese gold, that is.