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'Devotion' sums up a Chinese sporting life

india Updated: Jul 29, 2008 15:26 IST
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China's former Olympic shooting gold medallist Zhang Shan struggled to explain why she sacrificed large chunks of her life in brutal training regimes in a bid for sporting glory.

"Fengxian" she said triumphantly after a pause, a word loosely translated as "devotion."

"You have to give your time for the country -- you can go and ask every Chinese athlete -- they're all like this," she said.

And when it comes to giving up your life for the Olympic Games, Zhang, a slight and smiling 40-year-old is better placed than most to know.

After seven years of intense training in skeet shooting -- where athletes try to hit clay disks catapulted into the air from different angles -- she won the gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Not only that, Zhang also broke the Olympic record in the competition in which she eclipsed 54 men and four other women, at the age of 24.

Sixteen years on, as Chinese athletes prepared to compete in the most important event of their career -- an Olympics Games on home turf -- Zhang, who did not qualify for the Games, gave an insight into their training and motivation.

"For many years, Chinese people have been very good at enduring pressures and suffering," she said.

"For Chinese athletes, for all these years, what we talked about most was getting honour for the country."

She said athletes like herself, and coaches, were told to group together for training at least one year before big sporting events, and were only able to see their loved ones a few times in the year.

"In the West, they might not understand, you're not with your wife, you're not with your husband, how can you do that?" she said.

"But if you've been in China for a while, you would know that Chinese people can."

Zhang, who still competes, said that even now her own personal life was sacrificed to the idea of "fengxian", and her husband, an Australian former shooter who lives in Melbourne, understood it.

"When we have time, we meet up. When I have a competition, he'll come to see me," she said. "My husband knows Chinese people are like this."

Zhang herself was feeling particularly bullish about the Games, and suggested China could top the medals table for the first time.

"This time round, in China, there shouldn't be that much of a problem," she said with a cheeky smile.

But as the event draws nearer, athletes and officials have spoken of huge pressure at having to perform in front of a home crowd of over 1.3 billion people.

Zhang suggested that competing on home turf could even destabilise some sportsmen and women.

"When he is abroad, when he is preparing to run, he doesn't understand what the crowd is saying. It's a case of 'if I don't understand it, I don't hear it'," she said, taking China's superstar 110m hurdler Liu Xiang as an example.

"But in China, he can understand everything, he can even tell if it's someone from Beijing or Shanghai, so his concentration could suffer."

In a sport where a steady hand and eye are the key to success, Zhang understands pressure. It was hardest for her when she competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics for the first time after winning the gold in 1992.

"Of course I had pressure, but in my case, the biggest pressure was my own, because I knew I would not be able to get a gold medal."

She had stopped shooting after her success in Barcelona, deciding to go to university instead to study economics in 1993.

As the 2000 Sydney Games drew nearer, Zhang had already found a sports management job, but decided to discard that for another shot at gold.

She did not reach the podium, though, and failed to qualify for Athens or Beijing. But Zhang still hoped she would compete in the London Olympic Games in 2012.

"I won't retire, as I think I can still do really well. I will strive for it, I won't give up," she said.