Counting down China's 2020 vision

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China's diving team poses for a group photo after winning 12 of 13 titles at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, on July 20. Hopes are high the team can maintain its dominance at next year's Tokyo Olympics. [Photo/Xinhua]

It's been something of a perfect storm for Chinese athletes this week as the countdown to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics reached the 12-month mark.

Swimmer Sun Yang claimed his fourth straight 400m freestyle world title, China's women swept gold in the team epee event at the fencing world championships and Xie Zhenye and Xie Wenjun triumphed in the 200m sprint and 110m hurdles at the IAAF Diamond League in London.

Such results give credence to the notion that, after a disappointing third-place finish in the medal tally at the 2016 Rio Games, China is ready to rebound and achieve its target of finishing second in Tokyo - on the strength of probable gold medals in diving, weightlifting, table tennis, badminton, gymnastics and shooting.

Between them, those sports have accounted for 74 percent of China's haul of 224 Olympic golds since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Zhou Jihong, president of the Chinese Swimming Association, and Liu Guoliang, president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, both expressed their desire to "leave no stone unturned to secure the best results". With mixed doubles table tennis set to debut in Tokyo, China can at the very least expect to match its Rio tally of four golds from table tennis and seven golds from diving.

The country can reasonably expect the other four sports to produce more golds in Tokyo than in Rio, where China won five in weightlifting, two in badminton, one in shooting and none in gymnastics. At the 2008 Beijing Games the host won seven golds in gymnastics - a definite target number for Tokyo.

"We have nothing to lose this time, so mentally we're under no pressure to present what we're capable of in all categories," said Miao Zhongyi, director of the Chinese Gymnastics Administration Center. "We're full of hope."

Golden target

China's showing in the other sports will likely determine its final medal standing.

"We are aiming to win 25 gold medals from the six advantageous sports. If we take 22, we will regard that as a failure, but if we can secure 28, we will see that as a success," said Liu Aijie, the former director of China's Olympics preparation training and now president of the Chinese Rowing Association.

While there are no obvious sports in which China should make significant breakthroughs, there is some guarded optimism.

"Tokyo 2020 is a key point for the upgrading of Chinese athletics," said Tian Xiaojun, deputy director of the Chinese Athletics Administration Center. Similarly, Liu Aijie is ambitiously looking for three golds from rowing and canoeing.

China is hopeful of winning between six and 10 golds in athletics, swimming, cycling, rowing and canoeing, taekwondo, wrestling, boxing, judo and fencing but is not expected to make the podium in any of the five new sports - karate, skateboarding, surfing, sports climbing, baseball and softball.

Given the nation's haul of 32 gold medals, 30 silver and 26 bronze from major global tournaments in 2018 (a significant improvement on 2017: 27 golds and 76 medals in total), it is reasonable to assume China's gold tally will exceed the 26 achieved in Rio.

Meanwhile, Japan is aiming to win 30 golds, a huge increase from its previous best of 16. According to Tsuyoshi Fukui, secretary-general of the Japanese Olympic Committee, the host is poised to make significant gains.

"We talked with sporting federations and concluded that 30 gold medals is a realistic target," Fukui told Xinhua in a recent interview.

Host's high hopes

Japan's ambition is well supported by huge investment. The country allocated 4.85 billion yen ($44.7 million) to sporting development in 2014, and that number more than doubled to 10 billion yen this year.

After the Rio Games, the country established the "Suzuki Plan" in a bid to boost its competitiveness.

"The objective is to establish a mechanism which can help our athletes keep improving for the long-term," said the program's leader Daichi Suzuki.

Japan has also opened a purpose-built center to advance its athletes' all-round capabilities and priority budgeted the sports in which it is likely to medal - karate, judo, gymnastics, badminton and wrestling.

"Among all the Olympic golds Japan has won, 85 percent have come from judo, swimming, wrestling and gymnastics," Fukui said.

Badminton, athletics and table tennis have been added to the list of sports Japan hopes to medal in. It is also pinning high hopes on karate and baseball.

Top-three tussle

The United States is widely expected top the medal standings in Tokyo with over 40 golds.

After upsetting the odds to finish runner-up at Rio 2016, Britain will likely slide out of top four, with the boost from having hosted the 2012 London Games fading.

With this in mind, the top two to four places are likely to be contested by China, Japan and a rejuvenated Russia, which in recent years has been hamstrung by bans resulting from alleged doping.

Like China, Russia is traditionally strong in gymnastics and shooting and ought to be capable of notching 30 golds if International Olympic Committee restrictions are completely lifted.

It seems inevitable that there will be a certain degree of seesawing in Tokyo between China and Japan, as the two countries are similarly strong in gymnastics, badminton, table tennis and athletics.

Liu Guoliang views Japan as the main obstacle to China's aim of achieving a clean sweep of five golds in table tennis.

"As host of the Tokyo Olympics, the decision to introduce mixed doubles to the Games is not in Japan's strategic interest. Only one pair of players from each country can take part, so it's an equal chance for either team," Liu said.

Japan is also an archrival of China in athletics.

"Japan has set a goal of two golds in the sport, counting on the race walk and the men's 4x100m relay - exactly the same gold medal hopes as ours," Tian said. "We need to defeat Japan if we want to accomplish our objective."

Some Chinese sports officials are troubled by unpredictable home-court factors, which usually favor host athletes. "Gymnastics is a point-scoring event and the gymnasts from the host country are likely to be favored by judges, so it makes the result more unpredictable," Miao said.

Nevertheless, China is gearing up to take full advantage of the remaining year before Tokyo 2020.

"What we need to do is be the best we can be. A lot can change in a year," Liu Aijie said.

"A lot of problems can be sorted out in one year. Our overall strength is formidable and we can also enhance our strength further in the final dash, so we have our confidence."

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