Chinese athletes ready for Tokyo Olympics after extra year of sweat and struggle

2021-07-15 02:35:36 GMT2021-07-15 10:35:36(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

BEIJING, July 15 (Xinhua) -- A giant screen read "17 days 04 hours 08 minutes and 01 seconds left before the Tokyo Olympics" in the venue when Xinhua journalists paid a visit a week ago. Under the screen, the Chinese table tennis athletes were sweating during their last training camp before setting off for the Japanese capital.

Time is running out, second by second, as the long-awaited Tokyo Olympic Games finally begins on July 23, one year after its originally scheduled date.

The one-year postponement, a historic first in Olympic history, has posed tough challenges for athletes worldwide to stay in shape physically and motivated mentally, as COVID-19 played havoc with the global sporting calendar, including Olympic qualification competitions.

"The lack of competitions could be detrimental for athletes, as they could not adjust their form in training accordingly," said two-time Olympic champion Du Li, now a coach with China's national shooting team.

Before COVID-19 was under control in China, national team members had to train behind closed doors. Although being able to train was already a privilege compared to some athletes abroad, being isolated from the outside world for a long period of time could make life gruelling.

"It feels like there's nothing to do besides training," Rio swimming bronze medalist Wang Shun confessed last September after half a year of training at the National Aquatic Training Center behind closed doors.

Hard as it was, after an extra year of sweat and struggle, 431 Chinese athletes are now ready to pursue their dream and fight for glory when light is to be eventually lit at the end of the dark tunnel.


While some of the quotas had been won by Chinese athletes before the pandemic began in early 2020, China's women's football team still needed to fight their way to Tokyo at that time. The qualification tournament, scheduled to be played in Wuhan, had to be relocated from the outbreak's then-epicenter to Australia, and the Steel Roses lost more than a home advantage.

Flying to Brisbane in late January, the team had to endure a week-long quarantine inside their hotel, with training limited to running up and down the stairs and working out in the corridors. Finally cleared, they were left with only one day to fly to Sydney and prepare for their first group match against Thailand.

To make matters worse, three Wuhan-native players, including star striker Wang Shuang, were unable to join the team due to epidemic control measures.

Despite the difficulties, China earned a playoff chance against South Korea, and welcomed back Wang, who said she felt "retired" after 77 days without proper training.

Leading 2-1 going into the second leg, China was on the brink of missing out on the Olympics, having gone 2-0 down in the first half, before Wang Shuang contributed one goal and one assist to help the team win 4-3 on aggregate and secure a ticket to Tokyo.

"We went through a hard, 130-day training camp. In each day's training session we covered over 10,000 meters. We were more than ready for the playoff and when we went out there, we were able to get the better of them," 26-year-old Wang said.

Women's 49er FX class sailors Chen Shasha and Jin Ye also overcame great challenges for an Olympic ticket. After tough winter training sessions, the two arrived in Oman after multiple transfer flights and had only three days to get accustomed to the waters there before the Mussanah Open Championship started in April, yet they still came back home as champions.

"We made detailed plans before the event, encompassing issues like the rental equipment, characteristics of the waters and opponents, so everything went smoothly," said coach Qian Jun.


For athletes who had adjusted their physical and mental status and saved their best for an Olympic Games in 2020, the postponement was a disruption to their rhythm. This is especially true for veterans, who needed to make extra efforts to readjust.

However, at the same time, it represented a chance for young talents to get ready and shine on the international stage.

16-year-old Sheng Lihao, who was not even on the national team before 2020, surprisingly clinched berths in both the men's 10m air rifle individual and mixed team events through the Chinese shooting team Olympic qualification series in April.

He is one of the 11 "Generation Z" shooters China is sending to Tokyo for pistol and rifle events to fill its 19 quota places.

"This shows these young athletes are technically competitive and mentally strong," commented Li Jinsong, deputy director of China's Shooting and Archery Management Center.

The postponement also gave time for some athletes to launch a comeback.

In August 2019, three-time Olympic table tennis champion Ma Long made a risky decision: having knee surgery in order to be fully fit for Tokyo.

After that, the three-time world champion suffered a singles title-winning drought for over a year, before standing atop the ITTF Finals award ceremony in November 2020.

"As a top global player for almost a decade, Ma Long makes himself great through persistence," said Xu Xin, his partner in the men's doubles.

Having already collected all major table tennis titles, 32-year-old Ma is ready for his third Olympic appearance where he has a chance to make history as the most successful table tennis Olympian in history.

Elsewhere in Team China's Olympic roster, Wu Jingyu will be the first female taekwondo athlete to compete in four Olympic Games.

This time, she has one more fan - her daughter.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist retired after Rio 2016 and gave birth to her daughter in the following years, before making a surprise comeback in 2019.

"Many people asked me why I returned. In fact, I never gave up the idea after the Rio Olympics, so I decided to try after the birth of my child," said Wu, who failed to win a medal at Rio. "It's not about proving anything, or standing up from where you fall. This is about the passion for taekwondo. I want to explore the path where no one has ever been before, especially after experiencing losses."

Seeing her name among the Chinese delegation for the fourth time, Wu is ready to add a new chapter to her Olympic journey.

"The Olympic spirit is about overcoming difficulties, for a better life and a better self," the 34-year-old noted. Enditem