By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing
Joseph Capousek says China is running a military-style sports machine
China is desperate to top the gold medal table at this summer's Olympics, despite claims to the contrary, according to one former coach.
Joseph Capousek, recently sacked as trainer of the Chinese kayak team, said the country runs a military-style sports machine that puts winning above all else.
The 62-year-old German citizen added that Chinese athletes were worked "like horses" in order to bring Olympic glory to China.
That claim is regularly denied by Chinese sports officials.
Cui Dalin, deputy director of the State General Administration of Sport, recently said that China had "never thought" of topping the gold medal table.
'A military system'
But one of the most eagerly awaited battles at this summer's Olympics is the one to see whether the United States or China wins the most gold medals.
China's golden rise
China sent its first Olympic athlete to the 1932 Games in Los Angeles
Dispute over Taiwan saw China withdraw from IOC in 1958
When it returned to Games in 1984, China won 15 gold medals
In Athens in 2004, China won its largest gold haul yet, 32
Since it won its first gold in Los Angeles in 1984, China has made remarkable progress in a range of Olympic sports.
In Athens in 2004 it won 32 gold medals - second only to the US with 36.
Research undertaken at the UK's Sheffield Hallam University predicts China will win 46 gold medals this summer to top the table.
Mr Capousek, who took up his coaching job in China in 2005, says the Chinese are going all out to turn that prediction into reality.
And in order to achieve that dream, he said the country runs a sports programme that is set up "just like a military" system.
Relationships 'frowned upon'
Mr Capousek, born in Czechoslovakia, said his kayaking athletes, aged from 16 to 30, were under tight control from morning to night.
The system has faced criticism for taking children too young
They lined up to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, and no one was allowed to speak, said the coach.
He said they had very little contact with the outside world, and officials frowned upon relationships between athletes.
"Many of them are married or had boyfriends and girlfriends, but I don't know how they met them," he said.
Mr Capousek has a phenomenal track record over 25 years as a coach for the German national team, one of the best in this discipline.
He was hired to help China win some of the 16 gold medals up for grabs at the Olympics in canoeing and kayaking.
But he often found himself at loggerheads with his Chinese employers over coaching methods, and visits from officials.
Gold haul 'in contract'
These officials often came to lecture the athletes, said the coach - leaving the kayakers in no doubt what was expected of them.
"If officials came it was always, 'You must work more, you must do this, you are wrong, you are bad'," he said.
Mr Capousek acknowledges that every sportsman and woman wants to win, but says that in China only gold is acceptable.
The Chinese-language version of the coach's contract even stated that he had to deliver gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, he said.
Chinese sports officials sacked Mr Capousek recently after what they said were a string of poor results. He contests that claim.
Mr Capousek is now preparing to leave China, but controversy over the Chinese sports system will probably continue.
China aims to dominate key events
That system starts as early as six years old for some promising athletes, who are put in specialised sports schools for full-time training.
Those that make is through these schools go on to join paid provincial teams, with the very best selected for national squads.
The system has faced criticism for taking children too young, and putting them through a too-rigorous training regime.
That was a charge denied by the vice-principal at Beijing's Shichahai Sports School when the BBC visited last year.
Former athletes, such as two-time Olympic gold medal winner Gao Min, also defended the system.
"It's not [just] Chinese who are training hard for the Olympics. All athletes around the world are training hard," said the former star diver.
Chinese sports official also deny that the country is determined to top the gold medal table next month.
"It's the responsibility of Chinese athletes and coaches to strive for medals at the games," said Cui Dalin, deputy director of the State General Administration of Sport, earlier this year.
"But we had never thought of winning the most gold medals," he told state-run news agency Xinhua.
Just how hard China has been trying to top the gold medal table should be clear when the games begin.
It will not be down to luck if the host nation does well - particularly in sports in which it has little history of success.