China's 4 boxing medals were years in the making

Aug. 20, 2008, 10:46 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Those sparkly gold boots hide weary feet, and the sharp blue robe covers heavy shoulders.

In the four years since Zou Shiming won China's first Olympic boxing medal in Athens, he has carried his nation's ardent hopes for a gold-medal breakthrough squarely on his 48-kilogram (106-pound) frame.

Until recently, Zou had begun to sag under the burden. The two-time world champion light flyweight said he felt alone and pressured in his attempt to gain international respect for China in a sport its athletes couldn't even pursue until 1986, thanks to Mao's belief that boxing was a vulgar Western pursuit.

Zou's first fights in Beijing were nothing like the dynamic, martials-arts-inflected shows he put on in his world championship runs. Zou was fighting not to lose, and while it worked, it wasn't pretty.

"I lost the gold medal in 2004," Zou said. "Now that I am at home, I will try to win it back."

Yet Zou learned this week that he isn't alone after all.

Three of Zou's Chinese teammates will join him in the Olympic tournament semifinals Friday. The nation's boxing officials hoped to win just one gold medal in Beijing, but all four fighters are guaranteed to win medals - more than any team except Cuba.

Several nations have claimed the Chinese are getting an advantage from sympathetic referees and easily influenced judges whose seats shake from the thunderous chants of "Jia You!" ("Let's Go!") from the 10,000-plus fans at every bout.

But to most observers who don't wear the same colors as China's opponents, welterweight Hanati Silamu, light heavyweight Zhang Xiaoping and 2.01-meter (6-foot-7) super heavyweight Zhang Zhilei earned their places in the semifinals just as clearly as Zou.

"I hope our victories will show that China has great boxers," said Hanati, a talented welterweight who plowed through his section of the bracket. "We can (compete) with everyone when we have the chance."

China's boxing rise is 22 years in the making, led by an innovative coach who speaks of martial-arts skills and unique psychological advantages in his fighters. Whatever Zhang Chuanliang has imparted to the team, it has worked for more fighters than Zou, who shares a hug with "Teacher Zhang" before each bout.

China didn't get into the fight game until the government realized 11 gold medals were at stake in every Olympics, a prime place to feed the nation's obsession with first place. China entered the boxing competition in Barcelona in 1992, but had no success with little proper training.

Zhang gradually assumed a leadership role by developing Zou, who took up boxing after being bullied as a child. He clicked with Zhang, a former martial arts instructor who developed a coaching philosophy that included elements of his former profession's training and focus.

Zhang believed Chinese fighters should play to their apparent athletic advantages to minimize other nations' strengths, such as many Eastern European fighters' brute strength, or the Cuban champions' impeccable technique.

While China's opponents whined after losses early in the Beijing tournament, claiming Zou's teammates got too many points for not enough clean punches, Teacher Zhang saw the tournament in exactly the opposite light.

"The scoring system is very different from the past," Zhang said. "It's very difficult for the boxers, especially Asian boxers, because their skills are based on technique."

In another measure of China's boxing arrival, lightweight Hu Qing filed an unsuccessful protest Wednesday against the results of his quarterfinal bout against France's Daouda Sow, who won 9-6 with the help of a two-point penalty in the fourth round against Hu for holding.

Hu, whose opening-round victory over Ukraine's Oleksandr Klyuchko also sparked a protest of favoritism for the Chinese, didn't win his attempt to get another shot at Sow. But only top boxing nations are taken seriously when they're outraged by judging or officiating, and China clearly qualified.

Though China's success has been remarkable, the nation's eyes are still on Zou. He has been one of China's most famous athletes, just behind icons Yao Ming and fallen hurdler Liu Xiang, since he won consecutive world championships in 2005 and 2007.

According to Teacher Zhang, China's joy four years ago at Liu's gold medal in Athens is similar to the pride felt in smaller proportion from Zou's exploits. Like Liu, Zou excels at a sport that's both intriguing and unfamiliar to many Chinese, conquering a realm that was long thought unreachable.

Now that Zou isn't alone, his coach hopes he'll regain his artistic feel for the fight. After all, he only needs to look up to see more than 10,000 close friends.

"I really love this feeling," Zou said after his most recent bout. "I felt like a man in the ring."