China are targeting a place in the top three of the medals table at the London Olympics, though their squad of over 380 athletes will be considerably down on the number that represented the country at the Beijing Games.
They were represented by 619 athletes four years ago when they topped the medal tally by capturing 51 golds, the first time they finished on top of the table in their Olympic history.
With 100 days to go, China have 319 athletes in 22 sports already qualified for the Games with another 60-plus expected to be London-bound by the time all the qualification events are over.
Zhang Xin, a director of the Training and Competition Department of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said the big drop in the number of athletes was due largely to changes in the number of team sports represented. 'We entered eight ball game teams in Beijing, including softball and baseball, which are not part of the programme in London,' he said. 'Also, it is very disappointing that both our soccer teams have failed to qualify for London, the same fate suffered by our two handball teams.
'[Also], as hosts, there were certain sports in which we had direct entry without qualification, such as judo and wrestling. That's why the hosts always enter a big squad in the Olympics. I am sure Great Britain are going to send a large number of athletes to the Games and maybe only the United States will have more athletes than the hosts in London.'
China are expected to enter 23 sports in London, and will only be missing from three of the 26 programmes: soccer, handball and equestrian.
Zhang, however, refused to put a figure on the number of medals they would be targeting and played down hopes of topping the table for a second Games in a row. 'Our target is to finish in the leading group, with the United States and Russia our two main competitors,' he said. 'It will be difficult to predict if we can win the same number of gold medals in London as there are a lot of uncertainties in high-level competitions.
'We have undergone a transition period after the Beijing Games with a lot of up-and-coming new faces replacing outgoing veterans. And these newcomers have proved their quality in major competitions over the last three years, but they have also never been baptised with the Olympic experience and may suffer ups and downs when competing in the London Games.'
Zhang said that according to statistics from the last five Olympics, the number of golds won by the previous hosts dropped by an average of 32 per cent at the next Games. 'In London, our athletes will lose all the home ground advantages but have to adapt to new conditions including time difference, weather, venues, crowd support and cultural background. All this will become a big challenge for Chinese athletes,' he said.
'But we have also maintained a good quality in our stronghold sports over the past three years. These include table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, diving, weightlifting and shooting, and these six sports will be a major source of our gold medals.'
The official said the US, who came second in the gold medal count in Beijing with 36, have the quality to win more than 40 gold medals in London, while the Russians, with their strong government support, could get more than 30.
'United States have maintained a stable improvement in various sports, especially in two major sports - swimming and athletics - as proved by their results at the last world championships,' Zhang said. 'Russia will be another country to watch as they won nine gold medals at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea last year, but you cannot ignore the hosts and other countries such as Germany, South Korea and Japan. They all have the quality to challenge the leading group.'
Golds China won in Beijing, smashing their record of 32
Gymnast Zou Kai, with three golds, had the best individual tally