Largest team under pressure to deliver gold

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 July, 2008, 12:00am

The Olympic dragon unveiled its medal-grabbing claws yesterday - all 639 of them.

China has put together its largest team of athletes ever - more than double the 311 it sent to Sydney eight years ago - in an attempt to topple serial Olympic champion the United States from the summit of the medal table in Beijing next month.

'Taking part in the Olympics on our home turf is the long-cherished dream of generations of Chinese sportsmen and women. Now, at last, we can take up this glorious responsibility,' Sports Minister Liu Peng told an exclusive gathering of mainland journalists.

The central government has pumped millions of yuan into its vast, centralised sports development programme to produce champions.

Under the so-called Project 119, begun eight years ago, talent spotters scoured the mainland for athletes with potential to compete in non-traditional Chinese sports, such as sailing, shooting, women's weightlifting, rowing, boxing and cycling.

Now, Mr Liu said, was the time for the lauded coaches and athletes to deliver on their special mission, one that would not only unite the nation but underscore the success of at least one government ambition as it battles to control a range of difficult Olympic issues, from pollution to security.

Although high-profile stars such as defending Olympic-champion hurdler Liu Xiang and basketball player Yao Ming are under pressure to deliver on home turf, the other 637 less-known athletes are also burdened with bringing glory to the nation.

Experts have used a variety of methods, from gross domestic product to training techniques, to determine the outcome of the Games, and the bookies' favourite is on China to win by a whisker - just one gold medal. China won 32 golds in 2004, four fewer than the US.