Xiang Liu, left, will be one of China's gold
medal favourites [GALLO/GETTY]
China has 538 athletes qualified for this summer's Beijing Olympics and plans to field about 50 more to make up its largest-ever team.

Chinese athletes have met the hosts' qualifying criteria in 27 of the 28 sports, with only tennis missing, deputy sports minister Cui Dalin told the Beijing Daily newspaper.

In all, China expects to enter more than 580 athletes in the Games, Cui said, while cautioning against expectations that China's depth will see it top the medal standings in August.

"This is the first Olympics where our athletes are competing at home and they face a whole new competition environment and a whole series of difficulties never encountered before,'' Cui said.

"The gap between the Chinese competitors' performances in swimming and athletics and those of foreign competitors is vast.

"The sports China excels at are under assault, and China's performance in other sports has been unsteady."

The United States won 36 gold and 102 total medals to finish top at the 2004 Olympics, 20 medals more than Russia and 39 more than China.

China won 32 golds, second to the U.S..

China has enjoyed a rapid improvement in recent Olympics, going from five to 32 gold medals from 1988 to 2004.

Dating to 1996, Summer Olympic hosts have experienced an 8 percent increase in medals over the previous Olympics.

Australia enjoyed a 41 percent increase from 1996 to the 2000 Sydney Games.

China has nearly 20,000 athletes involved in its state-run training program, according to a recent report from a Chinese sports scientist.

Source: Agencies