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Tuesday, June 27, 2000, updated at 10:31(GMT+8)

China May Struggle in Sydney

With record-breaking swimmers floundering in the pool and the "Ma Family Army" of women distance runners in slow step, China may struggle to achieve its Olympic goals this year.

Many top Chinese athletes have under-performed in recent qualifying competitions, prompting a wave of criticism in state newspapers and a bout of soul-searching among coaches and sports officials.

Chinese sports chiefs have set their team a target of 16 golds at the Sydney Games in September, the same tally that put them in fourth place on the medals table at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

But Tu Mingde, Secretary General of of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said China could struggle to match its performance in Atlanta.

"Of course we hope to do better than fourth place, but that looks very difficult," Tu told the reporters. "To maintain fourth place we need to get more than 16 golds. Just keeping fourth could also be quite a big task."


Of most concern for the sports chiefs is the mediocre form of the swimming team, who have failed to live up to record-breaking victories in the early 1990s since seven Chinese swimmers failed dope tests at the Asian Games in Japan in 1994.

A national swimming championships and Olympic qualifier in Jinan in May failed to produce the usual slew of new records or any new challengers for places on the medal podium.

China's swimming team are aiming for a modest goal of just one gold, their lowest target in a decade, according to state media.

And Chen Yunpeng, a consultant to the Chinese team, was quoted in state media as saying they do not even look strong enough for that.

"It is obvious that they are improving but are not up to Olympic standards yet," Chen said. "Winning a gold will be very hard for the team."

Wu Yanyan, the women's 200 metres individual medley specialist, was the only one to make waves in the Jinan pool, clocking her best time since she won gold in the event with a world record at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia.


National athletics Olympic trials in Jinzhou this month were equally underwhelming.

Ma's team of middle and long distance runners were the only notable performers, sweeping the medals in the women's 1,500 metres, 5,000 metres, and 10,000 metres.

But none came close to the string of world records set in 1993 after their successes at the Stuttgart world championships.

"I know the whole country expects us to win a gold medal at the Olympics, but this is very dificult," state media quoted Ma as saying. "Almost all my runners are plagued with injuries."

Jiang Bo, who set a world record in the women's 5,000 metres at the 1997 National Games in Shanghai, had to pull out of the Jinzhou games because of a knee injury.

Shang Xiutang, Secretary General of the China Athletics Association, says China aims to win just one track and field gold, the women's 20 km walk.

But doubts were raised over their chances in that event too after Liu Hongyu and Wang Yan, first and second at the Seville world championships last year, both pulled out of the event in Jinzhou after just a few kilometres. Their coach blamed fatigue.


The women's volleyball team, silver medallists in Atlanta, have also failed to find form since a reshuffle in March after coming a disappointing fifth in the World Cup in Japan.

Last week they suffered surprise defeats at the hands of the Netherlands and Italy in the last Olympic qualifying tournament in Tokyo.

China's gold medal hopes were shaken further when the women's soccer team, silver medallists in Atlanta and runners-up at last year's World Cup, drew top-seeded Norway, Nigeria and the United States in the first round.

"We didn't get a good draw at either the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta or the 1999 World Cup," China Daily quoted coach Ma Yuanan as saying. "We're ready for the worst situation and I am quite confident of our strength."

With Chinese runners, spikers, swimmers and footballers fading from the picture, Beijing is banking on its gymnasts, divers, table tennis players and weightlifters to haul in the golds.

And China's saving grace could be the inclusion of women's weightlifting in the Olympics for the first time.

Beijing officials have said they expect to win five weightlifting golds due to the overwhelming strength of the women's team, who set three world records at the Asian championships in Japan in May.

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With record-breaking swimmers floundering in the pool and the "Ma Family Army" of women distance runners in slow step, China may struggle to achieve its Olympic goals this year.

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