High stakes for China at Tokyo Olympics
Tokyo officials may be sweating over whether the Olympics can go ahead amid a spate of Covid-19 infections, but one other country that has a lot on the line is China.
Due to delays caused by the pandemic, the Tokyo Games are being held just six months before the Winter Games in Beijing.
The 2022 Olympics in the Chinese capital will come into sharp view immediately after Tokyo, especially when it comes to how organisers will deal with coronavirus.
In a sign of just how eager they are for Tokyo’s games to go ahead, China offered for all participants to be vaccinated with its Sinopharm jab.
However, it’s an offer that many nations including Australia and host nation Japan have declined to take up as the vaccine is not approved for use in their countries.
Chinese athletes are also under more pressure to perform as their home country is relying on Tokyo to be a warm-up for its own games.
“Because the Winter Olympics are right on our doorstep, China will want good results [in Tokyo] to drive everyone’s enthusiasm for sport,” posted sports blogger Ma Bowen, who has 800,000 followers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“After Chinese people feel the vibe in Tokyo, they will pay more attention to the Beijing Games.”
The world’s most populous country topped the medals table at Beijing 2008 but then slumped to third behind the United States and Britain at Rio 2016, their worst Olympic performance in two decades with 26 golds.
The disappointment was summed up in a tweet by the state-run Xinhua news agency which said: “No gold for CHN gymnasts, Team China have suffered the worst Olympic flop at Rio 2016.”
The competition will be sharpened even further because of the fierce historic rivalry between China and Japan.
At the Tokyo Games, which were pushed back a year by the coronavirus pandemic and will finally open on July 23, China will have a giant squad of 777 athletes and staff, their largest contingent at an overseas Olympics.
But China will be without its biggest star.
Controversial swimmer Sun Yang, a triple Olympic gold medallist, was banned last month for more than four years after a second doping violation.
In his absence, China does not have an internationally recognised big name, but the country is still expected to hoover up gold medals in diving, table tennis and weightlifting.
Chinese media has branded its divers a “Dream Team” capable of carting off all eight golds in the sport.
There are also high hopes for the women’s volleyball side, led by star spiker Zhu Ting, and in the swimming pool with Zhang Yufei.
Chinese media dubbed the 23-year-old Zhang “the new butterfly queen” after she soared at the national swimming championships in May, winning five gold medals and a silver.
But the pressure for medals seems to be weighing on China’s table tennis team in particular.
China has won 28 of the 32 table tennis titles awarded at the Olympics, dominating a sport in a way that has rarely been matched.
Aside from China, the only other countries to win Olympic table tennis titles are South Korea (three times) and Sweden (once).
China’s six-member table tennis squad this year includes reigning Olympic champion Ma Long and world number one Fan Zhendong in the men’s singles, while world champion Liu Shiwen will play the mixed doubles and women’s team events.
However, this year fierce rivals Japan are counting on home advantage and some notably strong players – raising fears that the Chinese team might not have it all their own way.
On Tuesday, the country’s table tennis chief Liu Guoliang claimed the “smaller than usual” size of the playing areas may affect players’ performance and safety.
Mr Liu previously complained about what he viewed as the Tokyo Olympics’ excessive virus prevention measures which made the team’s preparations “extremely difficult”.
“We didn’t expect some epidemic rules like not wiping the game table with your hand, or blowing (on the ball),” he told CCTV last week.
Last week, the Chinese sailing team also complained of poor pandemic prevention measures at their hotel, saying competitors were forced to mix with other guests.
The opening ceremony for the Tokyo games is expected to take place on Friday but officials have not ruled out cancelling the event even this close to its commencement due to the threat of coronavirus.
There have already been 67 “Games-related infections” among athletes and others working at the Games including an Olympic volunteer.
Since the infections have emerged, many of the Games’ biggest sponsors have pulled out, including car manufacturer Toyota, which has cancelled its advertising in Japan and will also not send its executives to events.