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China will send 407 athletes to Athens, nearly double the contingent they sent to Sydney, but still 113 less than the delegation the Beijing Games organising body is sending to Greece.

The bloated 520-strong official delegation is a reminder that for China, Athens will be as much about learning lessons on how to stage the Games in 2008 as about sport.

Away from Beijing’s focus on how to run the Games, however, the Chinese athletes representing their country in Athens reflect a subtle shift in the country’s sports culture.

Once rigid products of the state sports industry, which was eventually besmirched by a raft of positive drug tests, many athletes now are freer spirits, out for themselves as much as their country.

Liu Xiang, 21, is a part-time television personality who will represent China in the 110m hurdles. He hopes to be China’s first male gold medallist in track and field and is in good form, having equalled his own Asian record of 13.06secs last month.

Liu rarely talks up his ambitions as an athlete, unlike the fierce combatants of “Ma’s Army”. That was the label attached to the record-breaking distance runners trained by Ma Junren, who burst on to the scene a decade ago and then disappeared almost as quickly amid unproven allegations of drugs use.

Hong Bing, a social commentator based at Fudan University in Shanghai, says that the new generation of athletes such as Liu have a “better understanding of the spirit of sports”.

“They compete because the Games are fun, not because of political teachings or the fact that they have been made to bear the dignity of a country on their shoulders. They know that failing in the Games doesn’t mean the end of the world and there is a limit to equating individual success with national prosperity.”

Li Furong, vice-president of the Chinese Olympic Committee, gives weight to this more relaxed attitude, saying that China expects to win just 20 gold medals, eight less than in Sydney, despite the increased number of athletes. The real test of whether that attitude survives will come should Chinese athletes perform poorly over the next fortnight.

Still, the traces of the tough state system have not been completely eradicated.

When Wang Hao, a rising table tennis star, was discovered to be dating one of his less favoured team-mates, Cai Zhenhua, the coach immediately threw Cai out of the national team.

Nothing, the coach said, could be allowed to interfere with Wang’s training.

Richard McGregor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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