SYDNEY • China shrugged off badminton's biggest Olympic scandal to sweep all five titles in London four years ago, but the Asian superpowers are trying to keep a lid on expectations of another bumper gold haul at August's Rio de Janeiro Games.
The peerless team who set up the "Great Haul of China" in 2012 will line up almost unchanged in the Brazilian city, anchored by men's singles great Lin Dan and defending women's champion Li Xuerui.
So strong were the Chinese in 2012 that they swept the titles without their reigning women's doubles world champions Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, who were among four pairs disqualified for deliberately losing pool matches to secure more favourable draws in the knockout rounds.
In Rio, all of China's singles and doubles contenders are expected to vie for podium places, but the days of gold-medal deciders fought exclusively by shuttlers in identical red shirts may be gone for good.
World badminton has moved the Olympic goal posts by limiting nations to two singles entrants in each event, down from the three in London and previous Games.
The move was intended to increase competition, but naturally prompted grumblings in China of a containment strategy.
With the new limits, fewer team-mates means more pressure on the remaining Chinese to perform for a nation which has become used to gold flowing from the badminton arena.
"Actually, I don't believe it's discrimination against China, but the rule came out and we just accept it," Li said yesterday.
She upset compatriot Wang Yihan for the gold in London and returns to Rio with the latter again among her biggest threats.
But China's world No. 6 Wang Shixian, who competed in London and is the reigning Asian champion, misses out.
"Maybe (we feel) it's a pity that there are three of us but we can only enter two," said Li.
In the last four years, other nations have been closing the gap, and the tournament will open in Brazil without Chinese players dominating the world rankings in every event.
Li is currently ranked fourth behind Spanish world No. 1 Carolina Marin, second-ranked Thai sensation Ratchanok Intanon and Wang Yihan.
There is little prospect of a shake-up to the rankings at the season-ending Australian Badminton Open in Sydney this week.
After beating Australia's Jennifer Tam 21-12, 21-5 in her opening match at the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre yesterday, the 25-year-old Li forecast a much tougher run for China in Rio.
"Yes, London was London, now it's a new Olympic cycle," she said. "The whole world's level has improved, so I think it will be difficult for all countries. So, we just need to worry about our own game.
"Everyone's got a chance. It can't be said that there are just a few contenders. It's possible for any player to go all the way."
PLAYING FIELD IS MORE LEVEL NOW
The whole world's level has improved... Everyone's got a chance. It can't be said that there are just a few contenders. It's possible for any player to go all the way.
LI XUERUI, Olympic champion, on the Chinese team's chances in Rio.
Top teams, including European powerhouses and newly crowned Thomas Cup holders Denmark, have employed Chinese coaching consultants, while former world champion Ratchanok has credited her current mentor Xie Zhuhua for much of her success.
Along with Spaniard Marin, Ratchanok has repeatedly pricked China's aura of invincibility at high-profile tournaments in recent years and has no fear of the Chinese.
"When I was young, if I beat the Chinese players, I would feel very happy, very proud of myself," she said yesterday. "But now there are many countries like Japan, India, Korea.
"Many young players (are) coming up, so I have to look at not only the Chinese (but) who is getting better."