China’s quest for diving perfection looks on the verge of fulfilment in London, where they are favorites to complete the first eight-title sweep and unite every Olympic and world gold medal.
It is four years since the “Dream Team” fell agonizingly short in Beijing, where only a breathtaking final 10m platform dive by Australia’s Matthew Mitcham stopped China from winning all eight Olympic categories.
However, the intensively drilled squad, marshaled by military-trained team manager Zhou Jihong, have looked unstoppable since they grabbed all 10 titles at last year’s world championships in Shanghai.
That success raised expectations of a flawless medal haul in London, the first since Olympic diving grew to eight events in 2000.
It is a result which seems pre-ordained after they won five in 2000, six in 2004 and seven in 2008.
Since China returned to the summer Games in 1984, their divers have claimed 27 of the 40 gold medals, making it the country’s most successful Olympic sport ahead of gymnastics (24 gold medals), weightlifting (24) and table tennis (20).
Their exploits, honed by eight hours of training, six days a week, compare with the US divers who won every Olympic title between 1928 and 1952, when only four events were contested.
Yet relentless team manager Zhou, the 1984 Olympic platform champion, is demanding even more from her squad.
“Our opponents are progressing day by day. Chinese divers also need much higher standards, both in techniques and minds,” Zhou told Xinhua news agency.
“Olympic Games are different from the championships,” she added. “Divers will get more pressure than in championships, and self-control is difficult.”
Wu Minxia, 26, a two-time Olympic synchronized springboard champion, gave an insight earlier this year into the Chinese team’s training regime as they pursue perfection.
She is part an elite group of Chinese sportsmen and women who eat, sleep and train at state-run facilities in Beijing.
“For people like us who live in a small circle, we meet people from similar backgrounds and have very simple lives,” said Wu, who has been in training since the age of six.
All-conquering Qiu Bo underlined China’s unwavering dedication when he reeled off 25 perfect 10s to score an historic 609.20 in the 10m event at last year’s FINA Diving World Series in Beijing.
Qiu, 19, FINA male driver of the year last year, says his biggest challenge ahead of the Games is meeting his own exacting standards, rather than worrying about his rivals.
“The biggest challenge is from myself to beat myself. The aim is to win everything,” Qiu said. “I enjoy the pressure. That is the pressure that moves me to get stronger and stronger.”
In the face of such dominance, resistance has been fitful among China’s rivals, and home hopes in London will rest on British poster boy Tom Daley, 18, who lost his 10m platform world title to Qiu in Shanghai.
The Briton knows he is up against it at the Olympic Park’s Aquatics Centre.
“Qiu Bo at the moment seems unstoppable, to be honest. He’s winning by such big margins ... he’s very much the gold medal favorite,” Daley said.
Australia’s reigning 10m champion Matt Mitcham, who has been battling abdominal injuries, will be hoping lightning can strike twice after he produced the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history to snatch gold in 2008.
“I’ve beaten Qiu Bo before and the Chinese aren’t infallible,” Mitcham said. “The way they train, they try to do it by repetition to take away any of the inconsistencies, but they tend to have a problem at that really high level with stress and diving under pressure.”