Sun Yang (Getty Images)
Beijing - China
are sending their largest team to an overseas Olympics, but forecasters
predict the 416 athletes will fail to match the country's greatest
Eight years after leading the world with 100 medals at Beijing 2008,
China are expected to win 89 medals in Rio de Janeiro, according to a
study from Dartmouth College.
Of those, 38 are predicted to be gold, behind an expected US tally of
48, said Camila Gonzales of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.
In traditional strengths such as table tennis, badminton,
weightlifting, shooting, gymnastics and diving, ageing or injured stars
and fiercer competition have dampened expectations.
Fans are pinning their hopes on figures such as Ma Long, the world's
top-ranked table tennis player, and controversial star swimmer Sun Yang.
The towering 1.98m Sun, 24, will be the most recognisable member of
China's team after winning the 400m and 1500m freestyle at London 2012,
but his current form is largely unknown after he missed the national
championships in April with a foot injury.
His biggest challenger could be Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri, 21, who
registered the second fastest swim in history - just three seconds
behind Sun's 2012 world record - when winning the European Championship
1 500m this year.
Ma, who has dominated the ping-pong rankings, was controversially
omitted by China's selectors for the 2012 Olympics singles. Ma finally
won a global singles title at his fifth world championships last year,
after a career that has raised questions about his mental resilience in
Lin Dan, the
32-year-old badminton gold medallist in 2008 and 2012, looks to complete
a golden hat-trick in his fourth and almost certainly final Olympics.
He will probably have to defeat his eternal rival Lee Chong Wei of
Malaysia, who is back atop the world rankings after returning from a
doping ban last year.
Lin beat Lee in both the Beijing and London Olympic finals but is in
Rio drawn to meet him in the semi-final, with world number two Chen Long
seeded to face Lin in what would be an all-China final.
China have won the men's gymnastics team golds at both the last two
Games, but will face a Japan line-up who won the world championships
In golf, Feng Shanshan and Lin Xiyu have strong medal hopes for the
women while Wu Ashun and Li Haotong, who have both won on the European
Tour in 2016, will fancy their chances of getting on the men's podium.
On the track, the men's 4x100m team, who won silver at the 2015 World
Championships in Beijing, aim to become the first Chinese team to reach
the Olympic sprint relay final.
China came second in the medal table four years ago in London, with 88 in all, 38 of them gold.
The Dartmouth forecast represents a marginal improvement, but
authorities have sought to dampen expectations, with Gao Zhidan, China's
deputy chef de mission, telling the official Xinhua news service the
country faces diminishing returns from its investment in training
"After Beijing was selected as the (2008) host city in 2001, China
started a long-term talent training plan for the Games," he said, adding
that while the plan continues it "is not as vigorous as then".
Reports in state media have also highlighted problems in the
country's state-run sports academy system, which takes in children at a
young age and trains them intensively in sports such as gymnastics.
Academies have supplied 95 percent of China's Olympic gold medallists, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.
But Chinese parents are more reluctant to take their children from an
academic track and send them to the gruelling institutions.
Except for the rare stars who have lucrative corporate sponsorships,
long-term career prospects for athletes are dim, retirement benefits are
limited, and athletes who have not attended conventional schools can
struggle for years to secure normal jobs.
China's anti-doping procedures have also been in the spotlight, after
the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) suspended the accreditation of its
national testing laboratory in Beijing in April.
In March, China's state media reported that six Chinese swimmers had
failed doping tests - including two who were let off with warnings for
taking the banned muscle-builder clenbuterol.