There has been a sense of intrigue surrounding the preparation of Chinese athletes for the Tokyo Olympics. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic a year and a half back, Chinese Olympic hopefuls have mostly stayed in China, either choosing not to participate in international events, or because there were travel bans on them. Apart from those disciplines where qualification was at stake, Chinese athletes have quietly prepared at home.
So, if the opportunity comes for World No 7 PV Sindhu to face World No.2 Chen Yu Fei or World No. 8 He Bing Jiao, or Amit Panghal to fight Hu Jianguan in the ring, for the Indians, it may feel like facing an unknown opponent.
The last time Sindhu faced Yu Fei was at the 2019 World Championships, where Sindhu beat her in straight sets in the semi-final. Since March 2020, Yu Fei has not played an international tournament. It is the same for Bing Jiao, who beat Sindhu at the 2019 India Open, before retreating from the pandemic-scarred 2020 and 2021 calendar.
China has been looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics with hopes of improving their medal count after a precipitous fall at Rio 2016. After topping the medal tally at home in 2008 with 48 gold medals and finished behind USA in 2012, China’s gold count dropped to 26 in Riom making it their worst Olympics in two decades (they still finished at third).
Tokyo was an opportunity to strike back, but after the Pandemic began with Wuhan as ground zero, the preparations of their Olympic-bound athletes took a different turn. China has come with 431 athletes, their largest Olympics contingent after Beijing and expects to hold sway in table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, weightlifting, shooting and diving.
For training, the Chinese stars had quality sparring partners at home and an enhanced and intense domestic calendar. They were also one of the first countries to open training centres and restart sporting leagues after pandemic-enforced lockdowns.
“China’s preparation has been very different. With the Covid restrictions they have not played any tournaments at all,” said India table tennis star G Sathiyan. “But they are a force by themselves. There were plenty of tournaments inside China (simulating) the Olympic atmosphere and with the same formats, so they are well prepared.
China has called on experts from the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the world’s top MMA tournament to work on the strength and conditioning of many of their Olympians.
In shooting, there are a lot of new young faces in the Chinese team, picked after a long series of trials. The qualification system was made more difficult with each step. The team includes 16-year-old Sheng Lihao in men’s 10m air rifle individual and mixed team events (where he will come up against India’s 18-year-old Divyansh Panwar, the current world No 2) but excludes big names like Rio 2016 gold medalist Zhang Mengxue (women’s 10m air pistol) and the reigning world champion in air rifle, Im Hana.
“They have plenty of talent to choose from, but the point is Indian shooters have been dominant in the last two seasons and we have beaten China at World Cups,” said rifle coach Deepali Deshpande. “So, it is no worry for us.”
In boxing, besides Panghal’s rival Hu Jianguan, the Chinese women’s team has a formidable reputation.
“China is strong in women’s boxing and few good boxers in men as well, but they have not competed, and if you ask me, I would not have gone into an Olympics without facing competition for so long,” said Santiago Nieva, India’s high performance boxing coach.
“They have a strong domestic structure and good sparring partners, but you cannot do quality training without competition. It is difficult to get that intensity of competition. And not to forget post COVID, the sporting world has also changed. You have the added anxiety of travelling, getting tested and taking other precautions. Those teams who have competed are prepared to take that mental stress.”
The two Chinese badminton stars last played at the All England in March 2020, when the world was a different place. With China’s domination in badminton waning – they won only two of the five gold medals in Rio – they have their task cut out for them.
“China will be at a disadvantage. You don’t go to the biggest sporting event in the world without facing any competition. The anti-Chinese feelings at the start of the pandemic perhaps made them train at home. No doubt they have a great structure but the sporting world has changed. Everyone has access to modern training regimes and sports science,” said former international and India national selector Vimal Kumar.
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