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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 12:59 UK

China crisis for British rowing

By Simon Austin and Matt Slater


China's crews have rapidly emerged as major players in world rowing

China's record in Olympic rowing would barely register as a footnote in the history of the sport.

Four medals but no golds is a positively paltry return when compared with the hauls of traditional rowing superpowers such as Britain, Germany, Romania and the US.

The country's performance at the 2004 Olympics epitomised this lack of rowing heritage, with not a single Chinese oarsman or woman making it on to the podium.

Remarkably, however, the host country will be one of the teams to beat at the 2008 Olympic rowing regatta.

This transformation provides a stark illustration of the ruthless focus that has made China favourites to top the medal table in Beijing.

The journey started eight years ago, when China was first vying to host the Games and a government-financed effort called "Project 119" was implemented.

The idea was simple enough: if China was to topple the US it needed to compete across a broader range of sports, particularly in five medal-rich sports it had struggled in previously - athletics, canoe/kayaking, rowing, sailing and swimming.

These five accounted for 119 potential gold medals (it has now risen to 122), one third of the total available.

It has been a very professional job by China - it's good rowing and there are no tricks in it

David Tanner - Performance director, British Rowing
Top foreign coaches were recruited, talented athletes identified and, for the rowers, a state-of-the-art training centre was built on the banks of the Thousand Island Lake, 250 miles south-west of Shanghai.

The fruits of this investment were announced to the world in stunning fashion at a World Cup event in Amsterdam last summer. China topped the medal table by a staggering 18 points, winning five golds, three silvers and two bronze medals.

The performance created shockwaves and, perhaps inevitably, aroused suspicion. Mike Teti, coach of the US men's team, was quoted at the time as saying he believed the Chinese were cheating.

It is an allegation that is strongly disputed by Igor Grinko, China's head coach for the last four years. The gruff, grey-haired Lithuanian is a former Soviet coach who later led the US to second in the rowing table at the Athens Olympics.

"Many are suspicious when we do good results," Grinko told BBC Sport. "Everybody thinks, maybe they have found some great new doping methods.

Lin Zhang (second right) celebrates victory in the men's lightweight fours alongside Zhongming Huang (left), Chongkui Wu and Jun Tian
Chinese crews have excelled at recent world cup regattas in Europe
"Some of my friends have even called me about it but I say, 'No, we just work very hard'. I guarantee they are clean.

"We have had many meetings with the Olympic authorities and they have said the Chinese Olympics must be very clean. They would rather have no medals and be clean."

David Tanner, the performance director of British Rowing, agrees that there is no secret or sinister reason for China's success. He has visited the country several times and was impressed with the resources being invested in the sport. China has a population of 1.3bn and 1,200 full-time rowers.

"It has been a very professional job - it's good rowing and there are no tricks in it, in my view," Tanner told BBC Sport.

"All credit to them - it shows what you can do with resources and a big population.

"They have employed a top coach in Igor Grinko and then trained their Chinese coaches up. They have also made full-time rowers. I remember visiting Shanghai some years ago and even in their regional squad they had 60 or 70 full-time rowers.

"They have their training centre and I'm told they are given plenty of financial incentives. They've just gone about it in a completely professional way and I suspect it will be sustained after the Beijing Olympics."

The Chinese government wants to finish top of the medals table, but it's not so easy

Igor Grinko - Head coach of China's Olympic rowing team
This, of course, could have serious repercussions for Team GB. Britain has a proud history in Olympic regattas and more of the same is expected in Beijing.

Britain is likely to go head to head with China for medals in three rowing events - the women's quad, women's double and men's eight.

In April, Grinko set his team a target of "four or five golds" at the Olympics, although he now seems to be reining in expectations.

"The Chinese government wants medals for sure - it is their goal to finish top of the medals table," he said.

"But it is not so easy and now there is more and more pressure. I remember Canada before 2004. They had six chances of winning gold but in the Olympics won only one silver."

Perhaps he was mindful of China's performance at the World Championships in Munich last August, when they won only one gold in the women's double scull.

Tanner agrees: "We need to see the end game - how they get on at the Olympics - before we make too many judgements about Chinese rowing."

see also
Sacked coach attacks China 'medal lust'
18 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
China 'to top Games medal table'
08 May 08 |  Olympics
Rowing on the BBC
13 May 08 |  Rowing

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