Chinese athletes making final push ahead of Asian, Olympic Games
With roughly six months to go until the 19th Asian Games open in Hangzhou, China's athletes across a wide range of sports from table tennis to break dancing are seizing every second in their preparations amid hopes of shining at the quadrennial Games.
For China's all-conquering table tennis squad, anything but repeating their haul of five titles at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, will be considered a failure.
Prior to the September 23-October 8 Asian Games, Chinese paddlers face another tough test - the World Table Tennis Championships (WTTC) Finals, which is slated for May 20-28 in Durban, South Africa.
"The two major tournaments this year will offer us opportunities to observe and select suitable players for our Paris 2024 campaign," said Liu Guoliang, president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA).
China has won 32 out of a possible 37 gold medals since table tennis debuted at the Olympic Games in 1988.
Liu, formerly a multiple Olympic and world champion, said that China is strongly in contention for another clean sweep of all titles next year in Paris, while admitting the challenge will be huge.
"The key is to select a squad that has the biggest strength and can handle the pressure," he said.
The Chinese diving squad, another perennial dominant team on the Olympic stage, held a test competition at the end of February to fine tune their form ahead of the new season.
"Hopefully there will be more competitions and I can win more titles in the new season," said Olympic and world champion Chen Yuxi, who finished first in the women's 10m platform in the test.
In addition to the World Aquatics Diving World Cups in Xi'an, Montreal and Berlin, Chinese divers will also compete in the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan in July and the Hangzhou Asian Games.
"Due to the tight schedule, mentally we need to make comprehensive preparations and adjust our athletes to the atmosphere of major tournaments," commented team manager Zhou Jihong.
Several Chinese athletes who compete overseas have also laid on morale-boosting performances lately.
At the International Gymnastics Federation's World Cup in Doha this month, Olympic champion Liu Yang grabbed the men's rings gold medal after recovering from injury.
"My main target this year is the Asian Games, where I hope to win the team and rings gold medals," said Liu, who had not taken part in any international competitions since the Tokyo Olympics.
For rising tennis star Wu Yibing, who was born and grew up in Hangzhou, the will to win the Asian Games gold is even stronger.
Wu rose to fame in February when he claimed the ATP Dallas Open title, becoming the first Chinese mainland player to lift an ATP Tour trophy.
"Since I'm a Hangzhou native, I hope to win the Asian gold at home," said the 23-year-old, who finished runner-up at the 2018 Asian Games.
Equestrian rider Alex Hua Tian, who is set to make his third Asian Games appearance in Hangzhou, savored a "big win to start a big year" after claiming a gold medal in the CCI level-4 event recently held in Montelibretti, Italy.
"There is a lot to do this year with individual and team Olympic qualification as well as the Asian Games and it is a huge relief that all of mine, my horses' and team's hard work over the winter is paying off," said the 33-year-old rider.
"This is just the beginning of the season, there is still a lot to do. The most important thing is to take heart but keep composure and keep working hard," he added.
Liu Qingyi, who pocketed silver at the 2022 WDSF World Breaking Championships last October, continued her fine form with a resounding victory at the Breaking for Gold World Series 2023, the first Olympic points event in breakdancing this year. The 17-year-old prodigy beat Japan's home favorite and world champion Ami Yuasa in a tense final.
Liu has set her goal this year as qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics as early as possible, with her mind already on a podium finish at the Games.
"I hope I can get the qualification as early as possible this year so I can prepare some 'secret weapons' for the Games," she said.
With China's first-ever long jump world title under his belt, Wang Jianan expects to build momentum on his achievements last year to deliver his best at the worlds and the Asian Games.
Making a breakthrough is also in the mind of the women's javelin Olympic champion Liu Shiying.
Having achieved glory in the past, China's women's basketball and football teams are both looking forward to their 2023 campaigns.
China won a silver medal at the FIBA Women's World Cup in 2022, equaling its best result in the global basketball showpiece, with Zheng Wei named the tournament's best coach.
With the Women's Asia Cup and the Asian Games looming, Zheng remained cool-headed towards the upcoming journey, while exhibiting her confidence in the team.
"We have already set a new goal for the team after the World Cup. We are not a strong side despite winning silver at the World Cup," Zheng told Xinhua.
"Everything will start from scratch when we step down from the podium. We need to take it as our goal in every major tournament in the future, and hopefully we can make it happen in Paris," she added.
China beat South Korea in the AFC Women's Asian Cup final in last February, bringing home its ninth trophy of the tournament after a 16-year wait.
Shui Qingxia, Zheng's counterpart in the national women's football team, is eyeing a spot in the last eight for her side, known as the Steel Roses, at the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The quadrennial tournament is the first major competition for China this year, prior to the Asian Games and the Olympic qualifiers.
"Winning the AFC Women's Asian Cup doesn't necessarily mean that we are a powerhouse in women's football. Physically speaking, we are still lagging behind those European teams. Despite the challenges, we never give up chasing our dreams," commented Shui.
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