No 11: Ma Yibo

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2008, 12:00am

Dainty dimples peep out and there is a hint of a blush. But Ma Yibo quickly mouths 'no', insisting she does not have a boyfriend.

She is no starry-eyed woman dreaming about love and romance. The captain of the Chinese women's hockey team is all business - her only purpose in life right now is to guide China to a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

'Yes, I have dreams at night. I dream about winning a gold medal at the Olympics. It is a nice dream,' says Ma with deep conviction.

Ma's life has revolved around hockey since she broke into the team as a teenager more than seven years ago.

'We don't have time for anything else. I don't have time for a boyfriend. Our focus is fully on the Olympics,' says the 27-year-old leader of the 'Snow Lotuses', the nickname for the Chinese team.

A tall and lithe central defender, the Dalian-born player is at the heart of China's hopes for a first-ever hockey gold medal, or indeed any medal, at the Olympic Games.

'Yes, hockey has affected my personal life. But I'm not unhappy. Right now hockey is the most important thing for me and my teammates. Our goal is to win a medal in Beijing,' Ma says.

The team will carry the hopes of a nation who are intent on overhauling the United States as the world sporting superpower.

To do that, they have to top the medals table when the Beijing Olympics end in August.

And mainland sports authorities realise that sports outside the traditional core group - like badminton and table tennis - have to come good if they are to break the American domination. And hockey - the Chinese women are ranked fifth in the world compared to the men's 17th - has been identified as a potential source for a medal, preferably a gold.

A dozen teams will take part in the women's event in Beijing, an increase of two from Athens. As hosts, China gained automatic qualification.

The closest China have come to winning an Olympic medal was at Athens in 2004 when they were beaten 4-3 in the semi-finals by eventual gold medallists Germany, and then lost 1-0 to Argentina in the bronze medal play-off.

Ma was a part of that team. And she has been preparing for another assault on an Olympic medal ever since that heartache.

'We have been preparing almost since Athens was over. There are about eight other girls like me who were in Athens, and who are still part of the team. We are all full-time players. I'm doing a degree in sports in the little spare time I have. Most of my time is spent training and preparing for the Olympics,' Ma revealed.

While almost half the side have changed since Athens, China have clung to their South Korean coach Kim Chang-back. The 52-year-old has been in charge of the women's squad since 1999, and this will be his third Olympic campaign.

Kim was at the birth of China's women's hockey renaissance. One year after taking charge, he led China to a creditable fifth place at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Then they went one step better four years later.

'I see a remarkable difference between this present side and the previous two Olympic teams that I was in charge of. The main difference is that this team have a lot of confidence,' Kim points out. 'Much of this confidence comes from the fact that China will be hosting the Olympics. But that is not the only reason. They are also playing well. At the moment we are ranked number one in Asia as well as have a high world ranking.

'The sport also receives a lot of support and backing from authorities. There have been a lot of resources put into the sport.

'As hosts of the Olympics, it is most important to win medals and we have been seriously preparing for this. I feel very confident.'

Kim represented Korea at the highest level from 1972 to 1980 as a forward. After his playing days were over, he took up coaching and was duly appointed coach of the national women's team in 1988. He held that position until 1994.

'The playing styles of the Chinese and the Koreans are pretty similar. There is not too big a difference in our cultures as well and it has been easy to make the switch. My wife and kids have now been living in Beijing for a long time. We have basically emigrated to the mainland,' Kim says.

Although Kim is still searching for Olympic success with his adopted country, he and China have already struck gold at the regional level.

Since he has been in charge, China have won gold medals at successive Asian Games - in Pusan in 2002, and Doha in 2006.

Kim still faces the biggest test of all. But he smiles at the suggestion that the pressure must be enormous, especially since the drama will be played out in front of a home crowd which will be baying for success.

'It doesn't matter if it is me, or anyone else, but all coaches have to face pressure. I have been trying hard, and I know the players are training very hard. We are prepared for Beijing. I'm certain that all the effort, time and resources have been spent well and that we will get a good result in Beijing,' says Kim confidently.

His captain echoes his words: 'We are confident. True, playing in front of our home fans will bring added pressure, but it will also serve to motivate us to greater effort. We will be playing for our country on our own soil and that will help us.'

Glory for the motherland is what matters now. Boyfriends can come later.