China's Lin, Xie favored in Olympic badminton
BEIJING (AP) China's Lin Dan and his girlfriend Xie Xingfang will be the center of attention in the Olympic badminton tournament which begins Saturday.
Gold medals for Lin and Xie in the men's and women's singles events would an inspirational boost for the host nation in a sport it hopes to dominate.
Lin will be out to avenge his first-round exit in Athens while Xie will be making her Olympic debut after being left off the team four years ago.
Badminton is hugely popular in China and capacity crowds are expected at Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium for the Aug. 9-17 badminton tournament.
Nicknamed 'Super Dan,' Lin is notorious for his on-court outbursts and will have to keep his temper in check in front of the home crowd.
Lin and Xie, who are both No. 1 in the world rankings, have been dating for years. Their relationship became public in 2004 at the All England Open and rumors have circulated that they will be married after the Olympics.
China's shuttlers won three out of five gold medals in Athens and coach Li Yongbo has said anything less than a repeat in Beijing will be a disappointment.
Lin has a first-round bye and will play his first match in the second round on Monday against unseeded Ng Wei of Hong Kong. Xie also has a bye in the first round and sees her first action Sunday against Taiwan's Cheng Shao-chieh.
Lin's nemesis, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, is second-seeded and will play his first match in the second round against Singapore's Ronald Susilo, who upset Lin in the first round in Athens.
Lee, who will be bidding for Malaysia's first gold medal in the Olympics, has beaten Lin twice in recent matches: at the Thomas Cup in May and the 2007 Japan Open.
Indonesia's Taufik Hidayat is the defending champion in men's singles but has struggled to find his form of late and is seeded seventh. His first match is on Monday against Malaysia's Wong Choong Hann.
Even if Lin and Xie fail to win the men's and women's singles titles, China has a deep talent pool that includes defending women's champion Zhang Ning and Bao Chunlai, No. 3 in the men's rankings.
China is the defending Olympic champion in women's singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles.
Yang Wei and Zhang Jiewen return to defend their title in women's doubles as do Zheng Bo and Gao Ling in mixed doubles.
While a sweep of the gold medals is not out of the question for the hosts, Indonesia boasts the top-ranked players in men's doubles and mixed doubles.
The behavior of China's coach Li will also be under scrutiny in Beijing.
His must-win attitude caused a stir in March when the international Badminton Players' Federation reported that Li claimed to have Zhou Mi throw her match to let Zhang Ning win the semifinals of the women's singles at the Athens Olympics. Zhang went on to win the gold medal.
Li made no apologies for his actions, saying that it was a sign of patriotism to put the interests of the team ahead of individual goals.
Badminton was contested as a demonstration sport during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. It debuted as a full medal sport in 1992 at Barcelona.