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Taekwondo: Home Team Ready to Put up a Fight
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Olympic gold medalists Chen Zhong and Luo Wei have expressed their hunger to beat all comers at the World Taekwondo Championships in Beijing from May 18 to 22.

Sixteen of the nation's best taekwondoists will battle it out with world's top athletes in the tournament, which will draw almost 1,000 participants from 121 countries and regions.

"I would like to say one sentence - I will beat whoever is standing in front of me," said a determined Luo, the Athens Olympic 72kg champion and also the only women taking part to have competed at the world championships in Spain two years ago.

Luo was also the gold winner at the 2003 World Championships. Her teammate Chen, a two-time Olympic champion, has yet to win a world championship crown, and this time she is convinced the +72kg title will be hers.

"I have been working very hard for the event. My only aim here is to win a gold medal. It is a big test before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and also a rare chance to compete on home soil. I will be focused on the top of the podium," said Chen.

A record 989 athletes will take part in the tournament, including three Olympic champions and eight champions from the Worlds two years ago.

Among them, Athens 58kg gold medalist Chu Mu-Yen from Chinese Taipei, 68kg champion Hadi Bonehkohal of Iran and 80kg winner Steven Lopez of US are the biggest stars in the men's field, while China's Chen-and-Luo-inspired team is tipped to be the strongest medal contender in the women's competition.

China's taekwondo authorities are optimistic about the women's team's chances.

"I have confidence in the women's team. All eight competitors in the eight categories are able to at least challenge for a medal finish. The worst result by a female athlete on this team is a national title. The rest of them are winners in major international competitions like the Olympics, World Championships, Asian Games and World Universiade Games," said Zhao Lei, deputy director of the Taekwondo Administrative Center.

Zhao singled out a budding athlete as a likely dark horse in the tournament.

"Liu Jing is improving rapidly in the 59kg. It is likely we'll see her as a surprise winner."

Liu, 19, was called up by the national team early this year and won the national crown in April.

But Zhao is concerned about the draw, as some of the best fighters are likely to duke it out before the final.

"It is so competitive in some categories that some of the best athletes are grouped in the first pool. It means our players will meet the biggest opponents before the final, and it will increase the risk of injury."

Defeat injury

Zhao's worry is not unfounded, as Luo and Chen are just coming back from time on the treatment table.

Chen won silver at the 2001 world championships but failed to reach the final in 2003. In 2005, her quest for a world title was again hit by a sudden injury.

The frequent injuries, including knee surgery before the Doha Asian Games late last year, have not dampened Chen's fighting spirit.

"We did a lot of psychological work on her. Fortunately, Chen has adjusted very well and she won a gold medal at the Asian Games," Zhao said.

To Chen and Luo's delight, China hired an American coach who has helped them improve both technically and mentally.

"I learned a lot from him. Not only the kicks but also something new about how to adjust myself mentally," said Chen.

Zhao also gave credit to Luo, who has been struggling with injury the past year.

"She is a tough athlete. The competition in the 72kg is fierce as there are a number of world-class opponents. Luo has always displayed a never-say-die attitude. We should learn from her."

Officials also appointed a South Korean coach to instruct the struggling men's team that has never won a world championship gold.

Zhao was not too upbeat about their chances this time around, admitting the world's best are just too far ahead.

"In most of the categories, Chinese male athletes are still unable to challenge the top ones, not to mention Hadi and Lopez. Pascal Gentil from France is also a formidable opponent."

Liu Xiaobo, a +84kg talent who stands an imposing 2.02m, is expected to break the jinx after wining a gold medal at the East Asian Games and a bronze at the Asian Games.

"It is my first world championships and I am here to make a breakthrough for the men's team," said the 23-year-old national champion. "Under the foreign coach, I have polished my skills."

World youth championships gold winner Li Lai is also a potential title contender in the 67kg.

Taekwondo is a martial art originated in Korea that sees competitors look to score points using an array of blows, mostly kicks.

(China Daily May 11, 2007)

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