100 Days To Go
As the countdown gathers pace, sports officials are getting anxious. Mainland fans expect China to top the medals table, but the pressure is taking its toll as officials bring athletes, seduced by celebrity status, into line. Martin Zhou and Peter Simpson
Smiles will grip China today as it celebrates 100 days to go before the grand opening of Beijing 2008 - but anxious sports officials are wearing a scowl.
Concerns that China will fail to reach heightened medal expectations and stamp its authority on the international sports scene to please the masses has seen the government's powerful sports ministry come down hard on its elite sportsmen and women, coaches and sports-related civil servants.
In a surprise U-turn, the government started talking down the medal count a few months ago because it fears a backlash from patriotic fans, who have been led to believe the top spot was a done deal.
The age of sports celebrity, concerns over doping and changes in training methods have forced the sports ministry to temper the glory hunt.
The pressure of high expectations coupled with the cult of Olympic celebrity that has been sweeping the training grounds and advertising offices, has seen the once highly disciplined cogs in the mainland's vast sport machine challenge authority.
In a rare public censure, badminton superstar Lin Dan and celebrity diver Guo Jingjing were singled out by high-ranking sports ministry official Zhang Haifeng for their high-profile lifestyles and increasingly arrogant ways.
Lin is in the middle of a PR storm after almost coming to blows with his coach, Ji Xinpeng, in training, while Guo drew a backlash from the mainland's sports press for her explicit arrogance and dismissing the media and venue volunteers at the Diving World Cup in February.
'Whatever results we achieve on the Olympic medal tally, Chinese sports would have its image tainted by rude and rough manners at the Games,' Zhang told a forum in Tianjin last week.
'The recent controversies surrounding Guo Jingjing and Lin Dan just served as a resounding alert to that dismal scenario.'
Just days before Guo and Lin's tougue-lashing, maverick weightlifter and reigning 69-kilogramme Olympic champion Zhang Guozheng lost his normal cool after a failed clean-and-jerk attempt in a domestic trial last week.
And he launched a tirade at his national team coach - almost sparking an embarrassing fight between the two.
It's not just the headlines of individual stars and coaches cracking under high expectations.
Fears that scores of athletes will be labelled dopers saw new anti-doping rules announced that many feel are drastic if not draconian bordering on the hysterical.
Olympic hopefuls found using illegal performance-enhancing drugs between now and the Games would be banned for life, regardless of whether it's a first offence.
The sports authorities then placed a guilt-by-association 'one athlete caught doping, all caught doping' clause in the policy.
This means, for example, if a javelin thrower is found to be abusing drugs, he will be banned for life - and so will all of the other athletes and team members at his sports club and training ground. Coaches and civil servants who run such clubs face the sack and financial loss. With so much at stake and with so much still to do over the next 100 days, one might think this is more than enough to keep everybody on their toes.
But no, the sports ministry sees the next few months as prime time to purge Chinese sports of all its ills.
Match-throwing and other unfair play between athletes to secure the best result for Team China will also be outlawed as well, promised Cui Dalin, the deputy sports minister.
'It goes against the Olympic spirit,' said Cui. 'You will not see it happen at the Beijing Olympics.'
There's nothing wrong with a spring clean but the austere measures and furious crack of the whip clearly indicate the mighty sports ministry is determined to keep the skeletons firmly in the cupboard over the coming four months - and also ensure new ones do not take up residence.
A few months ago, the mission sent down from the government was pure and simple: send China, in a wave of patriotism, to the summit of the Olympic medals table on home soil.
Now, against the backdrop of the torch relay chaos and general China and Beijing 2008 bashing, the motherland does not want to suffer extra blushes from its sports stars - even if that means conceding a few Olympic gold medals.