Centenary celebrations boost Team China's belief

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Three weeks out from the delayed Tokyo Olympics, the Chinese delegation has stepped up a gear in its final preparations for the Games, with over 400 athletes raring to do their country proud.

Chinese athletes had earned 317 spots for Tokyo 2020 by June 29, the official deadline of the revised qualifying system for the Games, which will open on July 23 following a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With talent evaluation still taking place within multiple Chinese national squads, including gymnastics and diving, the final Olympic roster has yet to be confirmed by the Chinese Olympic Committee. However, it is reported that a total of 413 athletes will be sent to Tokyo, with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

Although diminished by the retirement of a number of veterans, China will continue to pin the bulk of its gold-medal hopes on sports in which it has traditionally enjoyed the most success-diving, weightlifting, table tennis, gymnastics, shooting and badminton.

Those six sports have contributed a whopping 70 percent share of the total 224 Summer Olympic gold medals the country has won since its debut in 1984.

The all-conquering table tennis team is tipped to achieve a clean sweep of golds, including the newly added mixed doubles event, for a sixth time at the Olympics, despite facing tough challenges from host Japan in women's singles and doubles.

The Communist Party of China's centenary celebrations have offered the team extra inspiration to overcome whatever challenges lie ahead, said Liu Guoliang, president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association.

"The strong and fearless spirit of our Party has motivated us to do our utmost in our daily training and prepare ourselves to the best of our ability to pay back the support of the country with excellent performances in Tokyo," Liu said on Thursday at the team's training base in Weihai, Shandong province, after watching the televised centenary ceremony.

Liu, however, played down expectations of a golden sweep across all five events in Tokyo, citing the unusual build-up to the Olympic tournament during the pandemic and the host's home-court advantage.

"We have the ability and confidence to go for all five golds, but there are challenges and risks as well ... Ups and downs, wins and losses, are all part of the sport. I don't want to give my players too much pressure," he said after the team's four-day warm-up tournament last month in Weihai.

As defending Olympic champion in Tokyo, China's women's volleyball team is also under pressure to deliver more glory.

After a year and a half without any international competitions, the team, coached by legend Lang Ping, honed its young reserve players through five tough losses during the first half of the Volleyball Nations League in Italy last month.

When the full roster returned after several key players finished their quarantine, Team China finished the tournament with seven wins in a row, including victories over potential Tokyo podium rivals Russia and the United States.

With the country's women's soccer team no longer among the world's elite, Lang's squad looks set to lead China's charge in team ball sports in Tokyo. None of China's men's teams in basketball, soccer and volleyball qualified for the Olympics.

"Drawn into a competitive group at the Games, we have very little margin for error. Our Olympic experience from the previous Games is our biggest advantage that we are going to count on," Lang said before the trip to Italy.

After a month-long overseas trip, the team last week returned to its base in Beilun, Zhejiang province for the final stage of preparations behind closed doors.

In addition to the country's strongest events, China has also set its sights on challenging the world's best in two Western-dominated sports-swimming and track and field.

China's national track and field team has earned 52 qualification spots across 23 events for Tokyo, where they will go for golds in men's and women's 20-kilometer race walking and women's shot put.

"I've qualified for the Games and broken the world record, which proved my improvement over the years and has boosted my confidence significantly," said race walker Yang Jiayu, who set a 20km world record of 1:23:49 at the national championships in March.

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