China are steeling for a ferocious fight against ever-improving Asian and European rivals as they gun for a clean sweep of the Olympic badminton gold medals.
China boast the world’s top shuttlers on the men’s and women’s sides, but their blanket dominance of the sport has slipped in the run-up to the Games, as Malaysia, Denmark, Indonesia and South Korea close the gap.
China head coach Li Yongbo, who drills his charges with military precision, concedes they face stiff competition in Beijing.
But he is confident of success and put a positive spin on having a chasing pack as China battle to increase their haul of three out of five golds in Athens and four in Sydney.
“It is clear, and we should be happy, that the level of badminton is rising all across the world, which is good for the development of the sport,” Li said at the recent Thomas and Uber Cups in Jakarta.
China eventually seized control of the courts in Indonesia — one of the last major tune-ups before the Games — thumping South Korea in the men’s final and Indonesia in the women’s.
But some of the individual performances of China’s most celebrated stars, who have won every trophy the sport has to offer, raised eyebrows.
World No. 1 and top Olympic seed Lin Dan, known as “Super Dan” to his fans, was trounced in one game by Malaysian champion Lee Chong Wei, handing the world No. 2 a major confidence boost ahead of Beijing.
Lin’s girlfriend and top seed on the women’s side, Xie Xingfang, was downed by Dutch star Yao Jie, seeded 18 for Beijing, compounding Xie’s problems after she was bundled out of this year’s prestigious All England Championships in the first round.
Despite the losses, China boasts the world’s top four women’s singles players — including Athens gold medalist Zhang Ning — rankings which entitle them, under qualifying rules, to three spots instead of two.
China’s men have three shuttlers in the top four, meaning world champion Lin will be joined by Bao Chunlai and All England title holder Chen Jin.
The trio are set for tough battles against a tenacious Lee, desperate for his first gold for Malaysia.
Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat will also challenge hard, although the Indonesian camp has cast doubt on his chances of holding onto the title.
Denmark’s Kenneth Jonassen and Peter Gade also threaten on the men’s side, along with South Korean underdogs Park Sung-hwan and Lee Hyun-il.