Forget gold, mainland tells its icons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2007, 12:00am

Officials add new twist to 2008 mind games as they try to ease pressure on athletes

China's talk-down of its expected medal haul in Beijing next year plummeted to new depths yesterday when sports chiefs effectively advised their reigning world volleyball champions to forget about going for gold.

Instead, the Chinese women's team - who won gold at the 2004 Athens Games - have been surprisingly assured that a fifth-place finish would satisfy the nation desperate for Olympic glory.

'Anything between the gold medal and fifth place is acceptable for us,' Xu Li, director of the SGSA volleyball administrative centre, told Chengdu Business Times during a trip to Sichuan province.

Xu's words sent shock waves though the nation's volleyball fraternity for they signify a U-turn from the long-held determination to defend the Athens title on home soil.

Moreover, the new stance will leave millions of fans perplexed because the women's volleyball team enjoy iconic status in China's sports pantheon.

Despite a recent slump in form, the team have an illustrious history, having claimed five major titles since the 1980s. Past players have been held up as the ultimate national heroines for a generation of Chinese by the government after the traumas of the Cultural Revolution.

But it's not just the success of the country's volleyball team apparently being cast aside. Two other team sports - soccer and baseball - are also being told to relax and settle for being below first, second or third place.

Earlier this month, Sports Minister Liu Peng toned down the expectations put on the men's Olympic soccer team.

'All I ask from the football team for their Olympics campaign is to play a few exciting games and behave themselves well on the pitch,' Liu was quoted by state media as saying.

This is in contrast to Chinese Football Association (CFA) officials, who had made it clear to manager Ratomir Dujkovic their expectations begin at a semi-final finish.

The false modesty appears to be apart of an elaborate mind game being played by the government-run sports body as it tries to strike a healthy balance for its athletes, who are under enormous pressure.

Some pundits suggest the sports chiefs are trying to counter the same false modesty tactics issued by their main sporting rivals.

Western sports officials, led by US Olympic Committee chairman Jim Scherr and British counterpart Simon Clegg, have repeatedly played up China's medal potential in Beijing, forecasting the hosts would beat the US in the gold medal count.

Wei Jizhong, a former deputy sports minister and now an adviser to the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Bocog), hailed the 'second as best' approach as a step in the right direction for the country's sports bureaucracy - long renowned for pressurising athletes into becoming robot-like characters for the cause. 'They are eventually coming down to earth and realising that unrealistic expectations would backfire,' said Wei.

But Wei also warned that excessive talk-down could lead to demoralised athletes. 'It's a delicate game to play. The officials will have to strike a balance between pressure alleviation and maintaining morale,' he said.