HARBIN -- China creamed everyone at last year's Summer Olympics but its winter sportsmen and women are still playing catch up - a race they aim to improve on at this month's Winter Universiade.
Fortunately for this year's hosts of the biennial event, which takes place amid the towering ice sculptures of Harbin in northeastern China, its students are better equipped for success than its winter Olympians.
"We will try to set a new record on home soil by taking over six gold medals to rank top six on the medal table," said Zhao Yinggang, head of China's winter sports governing body.
"If our athletes achieve their optimum we could even be talking top three," he added.
China has sent its largest-ever delegation of 359 people to the sports gala, which got under way yesterday and wraps up on the last day of the month. Some 193 students from 13 universities and colleges across the country will compete in 69 of the 81 events.
China's medal hopes are pinned on six sports: figure skating, freestyle skiing, snowboarding, curling, speed skating and short track. Of all the combatants, Winter Olympic silver-medalist figure skaters Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao will lead the charge as they gun to defend their Winter Universiade title for the third time.
World No 1 Zhou Yang will also strive for a gold against archrival South Korea on the 1,500m short track speed skating course.
Winter Olympic women's free skiing aerials runner-up Li Nina will headline the snow events, while rising star Liu Jiayu is expected to shine on the women's snowboard half pipe.
Curling was only introduced to China six years ago but both the men's and women's teams have a shot at medaling, said Zhao. The women's team have already booked their place at the Vancouver Olympics next year.
The first gold medal will be awarded this morning in the 500m women's speed skating event, with Yu Jing and Ren Hu stepping in for China No 1 Wang Beixing in the fight against South Korean favorite Lee Sang-Hwa.
"There's pressure on me, that's for sure," said Lee, who turns 20 next week. "I just need to relax and do what I normally do to try and win it."
The Harbin Universiade is being viewed by many as a dress rehearsal for Vancouver 2010 and Zhao is keen to test out how ready China's athletes are for the ultimate challenge.
At the last Winter Universiade in Turin in 2007, China bagged three gold, six silver and six bronze medals to rank eighth overall. Its best performance to date was four years earlier in Tarvisio, Italy, when it dug up twice as much gold.
The ongoing Universiade has attracted over 2,500 athletes, coaches and officials from 44 countries and regions, making it the largest in scale to date.
The athletes will compete in 81 events of 12 sports, which also include: Alpine skiing, cross-country, ski jumping, Nordic combined, biathlon and ice hockey.