Opponents have made substantial progress

BEIJING: On home courts of the Beijing Industrial University Gymnasium, Chinese badminton players are encountering tougher challenges in all five events, compared to 2004 in Athens, Greece, where they pocketed three out of five Olympic gold medals.

Not only have major opponents made substantial progress in their own respective events, but the reform to the 21 point scoring system initiated by the International Badminton Federation in 2005 will also pose a challenge to the Chinese.

When asked if the Chinese national badminton team could make a clean sweep of all the five gold medals in Beijing, head coach Li Yongbo vowed to do well.

Boon or bane?

On home court, the head coach admitted players from the host country would enjoy some advantages which, however, could turn into huge pressure on them.

“It is a double-edged sword,” Li said. “It depends on how players handle it and their own mental strength.”

Suffering from weak mental strength, the world top-ranked men’s single player Lin Dan was surprisingly kicked out in the first round at Athens.

The defeat, however, didn’t derail Dan’s career, who clinched the world title in 2006 and 2007 back-to-back.

In the coming Olympic Games, the 24-year-old No. 1 has kept a low profile.

“I never feel that I could win the Olympic gold for sure, since there are several players who are strong enough to compete for gold,” he said.

Among these players, world No. 2 Lee Chong Wei from Malaysia poses the biggest threat to Dan. In the semifinals of the 25th Thomas Cup recently held in Jakarta, Indonesia, Lee posted a clean win over Dan.

Best medal hope

As the best medal hope for Malaysia in the Olympics, 26-year-old Lee also shoulders enormous pressure. “It’s now or never. This special event is held once every four years, and the second opportunity may never come,” said Lee.

In the women’s section, Xie Xinfang, the world No. 1 in singles, and Wong Mew Choo, ranked No. 9, will face their greatest challenge from Tine Rasmussen of Denmark.

Rasmussen snatched three championships in Badminton World Federation’s Super Series in 2008, and is now ranked No. 4, overtaking defending Olympic champion Zhang Ning.

“I think the ladies’ singles is very open,” the 1.80-metre tall Dane said. “I have a lot of confidence and I will be there to fight for everything.”

The Danish men’s doubles team was once the hottest gold medal hopes in Athens, but now has surrendered its leading role to Indonesia’s world No. 1 pair of Markis Kido and Hendra Setiawan, and world No. 2 pair of South Korea’s Lee Yong Dae and Jung Jae Sung. The South Koreans are favourites in Beijing due to their age advantage and Lee’s extraordinary talent.

World champions Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng are also real competitors in this event.

Well within reach

On the contrary, the women’s doubles gold is very much within the reach of the Chinese, who have occupied the top three seats on the ranking list for several years.

Defending champions Yang Wei and Zhang Jiewen won’t repeat the errors they made at the Uber Cup in Jakarta, where they lost to South Korean rivals Lee Hyo Jung and Lee Kyung Won in a tough game.

Their compatriots Wei Yili and Zhang Yawen, Du Jing and Yu Yang, will help them secure the most-anticipated gold which has been won by the Chinese for three consecutive Olympics.

Two-time Olympic champion Gao Ling is struggling to win the third gold in Beijing, which will make her the first shuttler to clinch gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games.

But this time, Gao Ling faces a bigger challenge in mixed doubles. Not only has she to nurture her young and immature partner Zheng Bo, but has also to take on the rapidly improving Indonesian pairs of Liliyana Natsir and Nova Widianto, Vita Marissa and Flandy Limpele, who are ranked No.1 and No. 3 respectively.

Also not to be ignored are the British pair of Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson and the South Korean pair of Lee Hyo Jung and Lee Yong Dae. — Xinhua

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