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China Announces Historic Delegation for Athens Olympics
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China will send a record 407 athletes to compete in 26 sports at the upcoming Athens Olympics Games, aiming to finish top three in the medal standings, said vice Chef-de-Mission Li Furong here on Tuesday.

The delegation, announced here in a press conference, will be headed by Yuan Weimin, Minister of the State Administration of Sports, and also consists of 226 officials, interpreters and medical staff.

"We have set two records this time," Li said. "The first is thenumber of athletes, and the second is the sports we will compete in."

China finished third in the medal standings four years ago in Sydney with 28 golds, 16 silvers and 15 bronzes, behind the UnitedStates and Russia.

Li thinks traditional powers United States and Russia are the strongest and should be in a group of their own in Athens while China should be in the second "group" which includes the likes of Australia, France, Germany and South Korea.

"Our target is to ensure our leading position in the second group," he said. "Specifically, I think we can win some 20 gold medals, it's very difficult to capture as many as we earned in Sydney because only 84 athletes out of the 407 have Olympic experiences. And 23 competed in the Atlanta Games, 79 in Sydney and 18 in both."

But he stressed that winning good results is just one of the two goals for the Chinese delegation, the other is to give Olympicexperience to the young athletes who are medal hopefuls in the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing.

"323 of them are first timers," he said. "And the average age of the 407 athletes is only 23.3, down 0.5 compared with that in Sydney. And 227 athletes are under 23.3."

Li, a former three-time world table tennis silver medalist, said, "After tasting the Olympics for the first time, they can definitely do better in the 2008 Beijing Games."

The oldest athlete is 43-year-old sharpshooter Wang Yifu, who will compete in his sixth Olympic Games and expect to win his second gold medal. The youngest is female swimmer Zhang Tianyi, who is only 14.

And as before, China will rely more on women athletes than men in Athens. Among the 407 athletes, women account for 269 and men for only 138.

Li said that Chinese athletes will face harder challenge in Athens than four years ago.

"In our potential medal events like table tennis, diving and badminton, either Australia or South Korea can pose serious threats to us," he said. "And we cannot afford to any mistakes in gymnastics, shooting and fencing before our Russian rivals."

China has competed in five Olympics since they returned to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in late 1970s. They finished fourth in the medal table three times in 1984 Los AngelesGames (15 golds), 1992 Barcelona (16), 1996 Atlanta (16) and ranked third in 2000 Sydney (28). They collected only five golds in the 1988 Seoul Games.

(Xinhua News  Agency  July 22, 2004)

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