China unveiled its largest team of 639 athletes for the Beijing Olympics, a squad many expect will dislodge the United States from the top of the medal table.
|China's Yao Ming is set to be fit for the Olympics [GALLO/GETTY]
China is likely to field the biggest team when the games open in two weeks.
This Chinese contingent is much larger than Athens, when 407 athletes were named.
China fielded 311 athletes in Sydney eight years ago.
Stars such as basketball player Yao Ming and defending Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang will be under pressure to deliver at home.
Show of strength
China's government hopes the Olympics will show the country as a rising political and economic power.
Any slip-up in medals, delivering clean air or controlling political protests would be seen as a failure of the Communist Party leadership.
"Only two weeks left, time is running short,'' Yao told the state-run news agency Xinhua.
"I'm recovering well and my foot is OK, but I've still got problems with my physical condition.''
The Houston Rockets centre returned to action last week's with China's national team in a victory over Serbia, his first game since a stress fracture in February in his left foot ended his NBA season.
Foreign reporters were barred from Friday's team unveiling, which was organised by China's General Administration of Sport.
China won 32 gold medals in 2004, four fewer than the United States.
The United States topped China by 39 medals in the overall count.
Russia also won 10 more medals overall than China, but had only 27 gold.
The United States said this week it would send 596 athletes to the games, 43 fewer than host China, although the roster can change because of unforeseen circumstances like injury or illness.
Hoovering up medals
In a quest for more medals, China's state-run sports schools have been targeting relatively low-profile sports such as shooting, women's weightlifting, rowing, boxing and cycling.
The Chinese are also expected to deliver in three sports they always dominate: diving, badminton and table tennis.
By contrast, the United States traditionally dominates two sports: swimming and track and field.
The Americans have won slightly more than half their overall medals in the last two games in swimming and athletics.
China won only four gold medals in athletics and swimming in the past two Olympics combined.
One of the first head-to-head showdowns between China and the United States will come in men's basketball on August 10 in an opening game in group play.
Many forecasters expect China and the United States to win more than 40 gold medals apiece.
China will get a boost from competing at home before packed venues and patriotic fans.
Statistics indicate the home advantage on average has been worth seven additional gold medals for the hosts over recent Olympics.
Chinese President Hu Jintao toured athlete training sites earlier this week in south Beijing.
Hu was accompanied by Vice President Xi Jinping, who is viewed as the heir to Hu and the man leading Beijing game preparations.
"Win glory for the country,'' Hu told athletes in sports like gymnastics, table tennis and synchronised swimming.
He went out of his way to thank Japanese Masayo Imura, who took over China's synchronised swimming team 18 months ago.
She is one of 38 foreign coaches helping China's teams, Xinhua reported.
Lithuanian Jonas Kazlauskas is coaching men's basketball, Australian Tom Maher is coaching women's basketball, and American Jim Lefebvre is coaching China's baseball team.
In addition, a Spaniard is the women's water polo coach, a Russian heads the powerful rowing team and South Koreans coach both men's and women's field hockey.