Olympic fever is sweeping China and bringing with it
expectations of glory [GALLO/GETTY]
China's sports authority is lowering medal expectations and offering counselling for athletes as pressure mounts on the Olympic hosts to succeed at August's Games.

Deputy Sports Minister Cui Dalin acknowledged that the Chinese public holds high hopes for their athletes to top the medal tallies in Beijing.

On Wednesday, he offered a long list of reasons why that likely won't happen.

"We've got to take a pretty sober, objective view toward this. Overall, we're not a big sporting nation,'' Cui told delegates to China's main government advisory body, which is meeting this month alongside the ceremonial legislature, the National People's Congress.

Like China, the U.S. has downplayed its Beijing medal chances in an apparent strategy to reduce pressure on athletes.

Historically, however, the host nation has enjoyed a boost in the medal tally.

Although China was second in golds at the 2004 Games in Athens, it was a distant third in the overall medal tally, Cui pointed out.

Chinese athletes are offered powerful inducements for winning performances, from entry to elite universities to lucrative endorsement deals.

In dampening medal expectations, Cui cited challenges ranging from rule changes to limited growth prospects in sports that China already dominates, such as diving, table tennis and badminton.

'Too far behind'

Meanwhile, China has recently fallen further behind top nations in medal-rich sports such as athletics and swimming which hold the key to topping the tallies.

"I just don't see much hope in swimming and athletics,” Cui said.

"We're just too far behind.''

The cancellation of some events in fencing, cycling and athletics have also eliminated some medal chances.

China is also weak in the three popular balls sports: soccer, "very disappointing,'' Cui said; basketball, "not so good''; and volleyball, "only the women show much promise.''

"In the competition altogether, the United States and Russia are still well above our level,'' Cui said.

Athletes are under pressure from the public, with invasive, often inaccurate Chinese media coverage making things worse, Cui said.

'Eat bitterness'

Sports authorities were ramping-up athletes' mental and emotional preparations by hiring psychologists to provide counselling, he said, without giving details.

Sports psychology remains largely unknown in China, with most coaches merely telling their athletes to "chi ku,'' or "eat bitterness.''

In one bright spot, Cui said authorities were cheered by news that NBA All Star center Yao Ming was expected to be fit to play for China despite suffering a season-ending foot injury.

He said the scare had prompted Chinese coaches to redouble efforts to prevent player injuries.

Cui laughed, however, when asked to offer a prediction for China's medal haul.

"The beautiful thing about athletic competition is that you never know the result until the competition is over,'' he said.

In his address to the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao said the Games will boost China's development.

"We will prepare for and organize the Games well, strengthen cooperation with the international community, and create an excellent environment to ensure that the Games are a unique, well-run sporting event,'' Wen said Wednesday.

Source: Agencies