Tokyo 2020: Four days to go

China look for solid display even without star swimmer

There are high hopes for China's "butterfly queen" Zhang Yufei in the absence of swim star Sun Yang. The triple Olympic gold medallist was banned for more than four years after a second doping violation.
There are high hopes for China's "butterfly queen" Zhang Yufei in the absence of swim star Sun Yang. The triple Olympic gold medallist was banned for more than four years after a second doping violation.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SHANGHAI • China are missing banned swimming star Sun Yang but they will take a record contingent to Tokyo, seeking a strong showing with their own Olympics just months away.

The world's most populous country topped the medals table at Beijing 2008 but then slumped to third behind the United States and Britain at Rio 2016, their worst Olympic performance in two decades with 26 golds.

The disappointment was summed up in a tweet by the state-run Xinhua news agency which said: "No gold for CHN gymnasts, Team China have suffered the worst Olympic flop at Rio 2016."

At the Tokyo Games, pushed back a year by the coronavirus but finally due to open on Friday, China will have a giant squad of 777 athletes - diver Quan Hongchan, 14, is the youngest and equestrian Li Zhenqiang, 52, the oldest - and staff, their largest contingent at an overseas Olympics.

But if they are to improve on Rio, China will have to do it without their biggest star.

Controversial swimmer Sun, a triple Olympic gold medallist, was banned last month for more than four years after a second doping violation.

In his absence, China do not have a world-known name but will still anticipate raking in gold medals in diving, table tennis and weightlifting.

Chinese media has branded its divers a "Dream Team" capable of carting off all eight golds in the sport. There are also high hopes for the women's volleyball side, led by star spiker Zhu Ting, 26, and in the aquatics pool with Zhang Yufei, 23.

Chinese media dubbed her "the new butterfly queen" after she soared at the national swimming championships in May, winning five golds and a silver.

While Chinese paddlers have won 28 of the 32 Olympic titles, their table tennis president Liu Guoliang has bemoaned Covid-19 safety rules, saying they are making life "extremely difficult" as his team look to sweep the golds once again.

"We didn't expect some epidemic rules like not wiping the game table with your hand, or blowing (on the ball)," he told state broadcaster CCTV.

  • 777

    Athletes from China will be competing at the Tokyo Olympics, their largest contingent at an overseas Games.

  • 26

    Gold medals won by China at the Rio Games, their worst tally at an Olympics since their 16 at Atlanta 1996.

A clip of the interview had attracted 140 million views on China's Twitter-like platform Weibo up till last Wednesday.

"If you can't beat us, so be it. Why look for so many reasons including the pandemic?" one user wrote.

China's six-member squad this year includes reigning Olympic champion Ma Long and world No. 1 Fan Zhendong in the men's singles, while world champion Liu Shiwen will play the mixed doubles and women's team events.

Aside from China, the only other countries to win Olympic table tennis titles are South Korea (thrice) and Sweden (once).

China's performances and place on the medals table are always a source of national pride, but there is added spice this time because of the fierce historical rivalry between China and Japan.

Moreover, because of the year's delay to the Tokyo Olympics, there are just six months between the Summer Games in Japan and Winter Games in Beijing.

The 2022 Olympics in the Chinese capital will come into sharp view immediately after Tokyo, especially when it comes to how organisers will deal with the coronavirus.

Because of repeated obstacles thrown up by the virus, there will also be particular interest in the women's football team.

The Steel Roses endured a tortuous qualifying campaign that saw them quarantined and training in a hotel corridor in Australia in the earlier days of the pandemic.

After repeated delays and rescheduling, they finally sealed a last-ditch spot in Tokyo in April after defeating South Korea in extra time in a tense play-off.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2021, with the headline 'China look for solid display even without star swimmer'. Subscribe