China plays down golden Paralympic expectations

A new generation of Chinese athletes arrived in London this week with hopes of dominating the Paralympics, but officials are downplaying chances the streamlined team can match its mammoth 2008 medal haul.

China's Paralympic team swept all aside in Beijing four years ago, with 89 golds and 211 medals in total, more than double its nearest rival Great Britain on both counts.

But its 332 athletes at Beijing -- the largest ever Chinese Paralympic delegation -- has been reduced to 282 for London, and almost half are debutants at the event.

Jia Yong, vice president of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, said he hoped China will be among the top three teams in the London medals table.

Other officials believe the Chinese athletes will face a stern test on foreign soil. As host four years ago China enjoyed automatic qualification, but failed to qualify for five of the 20 Paralympic sports in London.

"China is facing a much more difficult challenge than in Beijing when we were the host country, as the fight for each and every gold in London will be more intense," said Wang Naikun, deputy head of China's London Paralympics delegation.

But China is still expected to top the medals table for the third consecutive games, dominating in athletics, powerlifting, judo and wheelchair fencing.

China won 38 of its gold medals in track and field events in Beijing, including the 4x100 wheelchair race, considered one of the most exciting events of the Games.

Eight of the 12 members of the London wheelchair racing team performed in Beijing, including captain and four-time gold medallist Zhang Lixin.

But Yang Zhonghua, head coach of China's running and jumping team, pointed out most of his athletes had never experienced a Paralympics.

"These young athletes have never competed in a big event. They might face difficult situations," he told the state-run China National Television.

"The veterans are also facing potential threats at what will be their last Games. We definitely feel a little pressure."

China's wheelchair fencers will be aiming to better their four-medal tally from 2008 with a team that includes three World Champions, and the country also boasts powerful swimming and archery teams.

The men's five-a-side footballers took silver in Beijing, losing to Brazil in the final, but have since gone on to finish runner-up at the 2010 World Cup and win last year's Asia Cup.

The team -- which is made up mainly of Armed Forces personnel -- will arrive in London after a nine-month training camp in China's southeastern Fujian province.

The men's goalball side -- the event involves players throwing a ball into the opponents' net while blindfolded -- are the current Paralympic and World Champions, while the women's team are also world champions.

About half of China's Paralympic athletes train at the China Disability Sports Training Center in Beijing.

The facility was built in the run up to Beijing 2008 and is the world's largest training venue for athletes with disabilities.

Paralympic officials say China's success at recent Games has been achieved because disabled people have been given more opportunity to take part in sports over the last 25 years.

"There has been a huge change in the situation for disabled people in China," Zhao Qian, an official with China's London Paralympics delegation told AFP.

"More disabled people now have the confidence to achieve their goals, so we encourage them to practice sports.

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