China downplays Sochi hopes without star skater

by Neil Connor, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 24 2014 05:55 PM | Updated as of Jan 25 2014 01:55 AM

BEIJING - Chinese hopes of building on a "historic breakthrough" at the last Winter Olympics are thawing, officials say, as they prepare for the Sochi Games without their star speed skater.

China clinched a respectable five gold medals, two silvers and four bronzes at Vancouver in 2010, putting the country seventh in the medals table only two Games after winning its first winter golds.

But three of the Vancouver first places came courtesy of Wang Meng, a fiery red-haired woman speed skater who took the 500m and 1,000m titles and was part of China's victorious 3,000m relay team.

China's most decorated winter Olympian suffered a broken ankle just 22 days before the Sochi Games, leaving her attendance in serious doubt and sports officials searching for new heroes.

"Undoubtedly that will affect the performance of the Chinese delegation in the gold medal tally," said vice sports minister Yang Shuan.

"However, the Chinese short track skating team has had its morale lifted because of Wang Meng's injury," he insisted. "They all want to compete on her behalf."

Among the speed skaters looking to step up in Wang's trademark 500m event are Fan Kexin, a 20-year-old who had an impressive World Cup season last year, and Zhou Yang, who won the 1,500m gold in Vancouver.

Zhou narrowly missed out on victory in the 1,000m four years ago, committing a fault in the final to leave the way open for Wang.

She will also be hoping the Chinese relay team replicates its performance at the 2010 Games, when they destroyed the field, crossing the line three seconds ahead of their nearest competitors.

Figure skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won China's other gold in Vancouver, breaking Russia's 46-year Olympic gold medal streak in pairs.

The husband-and-wife pair retired soon afterwards, having performed together for 20 years, and Zhao is now the head coach of China's figure skating pairs team, but their compatriots Pang Qing and Tong Jian, who claimed silver in Vancouver, will return in Sochi.

China has risen to become a major sporting power at the summer Games, topping the medal table on home soil at the Beijing Olympics and coming second at London 2012.

But it is nothing like as dominant at the winter Games, where almost all its medals have come on the ice.

The country lacks an extensive network of ski resorts at high altitude that would give athletes a chance to develop world-class skills on snow.

Vice sports minister Yang described the performance in Vancouver as a "historic breakthrough", but admitted all the medals won were "in a few sports".

China is a "middle" ranked country at winter sports, he said, adding that of the 98 events at Sochi "about one third of them are not played competitively in China".

Even so Beijing and the city of Zhangjiakou, in the neighbouring province of Hebei, have launched an ambitious bid to stage the Winter Games in 2022.

The candidature is considered an outside chance -- as well as China's issues with pollution, both the 2018 winter Games in South Korea's Pyeongchang and the 2020 summer event in Tokyo are being held in Asia.

But officials still hope China will make a respectable showing in Sochi, where its athletes will compete in about 40 events across nine of the 15 disciplines.

Yang remained tight-lipped when asked to predict how many medals the team will bring back from Russia.

"We don't have a specific target for the number of medals we want to win. We just want to encourage our athletes to work hard and go all out to get them," he said.

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