“Of course we’re improving, but we’re still quite far behind the U.S. and Australia,” Yao told The Associated Press on Monday. “We won just one gold at the 2008 Olympics, so we just want to work harder and get better.”
China has spent the past decade rebuilding its swimming program following a series of devastating doping scandals in the 1990s. The Chinese women’s team dominated the sport in the early part of the decade, winning 12 gold medals at the 1994 worlds, but dozens of swimmers subsequently tested positive for banned substances.
After the Chinese swimming association cracked down on cheating in the late 1990s, instituting a lifetime ban for swimmers and coaches who are caught taking performance-enhancing drugs, China’s performances in the pool trailed off dramatically.
Chinese swimmers didn’t win any golds at the 2005 or 2007 world championships, and just the one gold in their home pool at the 2008 Olympics when Liu Zige captured the women’s 200-meter butterfly.
However, at the 2009 worlds in Rome, the team started to show signs of a resurgence, winning 10 medals overall, including four golds.
“Of course, the more golds we win in Shanghai, the better,” Yao said.“But I know it will be difficult. The Americans, Australians and Europeans are really experienced and have a long history in these events.”
China’s top hope in Shanghai is the extremely popular 19-year-old Sun Yang, who shocked the world last year at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, where he nearly broke Australian Grant Hackett’s 10-year-old world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
Sun, under the tutelage of Hackett’s former coach, Dennis Cotterell, finished the Guangzhou race in 14 minutes, 35.43 seconds, just under a second off Hackett’s 14:34.56 from the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan in 2001.
Sun will be competing in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events in Shanghai, but said this month that his most important race will be the 400 meters, where he’ll face South Korean rival Park Tae-hwan. Sun has set the fastest time in the world this year in the event at 3:41.48, just 0.05 faster than Park’s best.
“We want him to be more experienced through this competition and focus more on the Olympics next year,” Yao said. “We aren’t putting much pressure on him to break the world record (in the 1,500 meters).”
Yao said China is expecting to win a gold in the women’s 200-meter butterfly, which features both Liu and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Jiao Liuyang.
China should contend for gold in the women’s relays, having captured two titles in world-record times in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and the 4x100-meter medley in Rome.
Wu Peng has also been swimming well in the men’s 200-meter butterfly, beating American Michael Phelps twice at meets in the United States this year.
The biggest question for the Chinese team is how Zhang Lin, the 2009 gold medalist in the men’s 800-meter freestyle, will perform. Chinese swimming officials said this month that Zhang wouldn’t defend his title because of lack of conditioning, but they would allow him to compete in the 200-meter freestyle and 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
Zhang, who also won a silver at the Beijing Olympics in the 400-meter freestyle, has struggled in recent months, failing to win an individual gold at the Asian Games in November.
Yao said he isn’t worried about the possibility of his swimmers eating meat contaminated with clenbuterol, which has prompted Shanghai officials to provide teams with a list of 15 restaurants where the meat is guaranteed not to be tainted.
Chemical additives have been linked to cattle and pig raising in China. One such additive, clenbuterol, is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.
“We are just allowed to eat in these 15 restaurants,” Yao said. “No athletes are allowed to eat outside.”