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Buzz or burden for pressured Chinese athletes?

Aug. 10, 2008, 11:38 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Guo Jingjing and Wu Minxia were perfectly prepared and lucky - the Olympic springboard synchronized diving champions reveled in the Beijing buzz. But other Chinese Olympians have freaked out in China's first games on home soil.

Call it the Beijing burden.

The pressure to perform is not just down to the fact that China puts a massive premium on gold, especially in the sports it does best. As pingpong star Zhang Yining said before the games: "Coming in second is the same as failing."

On top of that are the expectations of a fifth of humanity and exhortations from communist leaders who have made the games and success in sports a matter of national pride. No wonder the added weight of competing before cheering home crowds is proving too much for some Chinese athletes to bear.

There have been several notable flops and below-par performances. One rower was disqualified for forgetting which race he was in. The early jitters could dent Chinese hopes of finishing ahead of the United States in what is expected to be a tight race to top the medal table.

Six weeks before the games opened, Chinese world champion fencer Wang Lei complained on what appears to be his personal blog that sports officials and coaches were pushing him to breaking point, "dying to make us train 24 hours a day."

He described his training facility as having electric fencing and police patrols outside. He joked that perhaps he should pick up survival tips from the TV series "Prison Break." The blog has 20 photos of Wang in happier times: with a pooch on a sunny beach and posing in a team China tracksuit.

"With the approach of the Olympics, everyone is like a tightly wound bowstring," the blog posting reads. "I know the importance of the approaching competition, but I feel like I am on the verge of falling apart."

"I have utterly no freedom."

Wang, who won silver at the last games and the world championship in 2006, was bundled out Sunday in his first contest, losing to a Dutch first-time Olympian, Bas Verwijlen.

"He was so nervous that he didn't do the best," China's official Xinhua news agency quoted Wang's teammate, Yin Lianchi, as saying.

Shooter Du Li also buckled under the pressure. China had been looking to the Athens Olympic champion to win the first gold in Beijing on Saturday. Instead, she slumped to fifth and "fled the shooting hall in tears, without saying a word," Xinhua reported.

Later, Du said: "I wasn't fully prepared for the pressure of competing at home."

Chinese athletes, of course, haven't been the only ones suffering from performance anxiety. And others have thrived in the pressure-cooker of a home Olympics. At the end of Day 2, China and the United States both had eight medals, but six of the Chinese were gold, to just two American.

Zhang Lin won China's first swimming medal of the games Sunday, a silver in the men's 400 freestyle. But Zhang has been training abroad, in Australia with coach Denis Cotterell. That may have made a difference.

China has also turned to psychology, once seen as a black art in Chairman Mao Zedong's time. Chinese media say sports psychologists have counseled teams and coaches on how to chill out, and provided music therapy. A government-run sports science institute has a password-protected Web site where Olympic athletes can download advice and soothing tunes.

Nerves weren't a problem for Guo and Wu, who easily defended the 3-meter synchro title they won four years ago in Athens. They tried to treat the event as any other to take off the pressure, chilled out by chatting with each other between dives and kept their minds on the routines, not the roars from the crowd. Guo said pressure is "unavoidable. I just do my best to overcome it."

Research in Britain had suggested that China could pick up as many as seven extra golds because of the boost of playing before home crowds. "When you start to think about China's home-field bump, that's when you start to lose sleep," Steve Roush, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee, had said.

But there's a fine line between succumbing or rising to expectations.

"You could look at it in two ways," said Canadian gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, a gold medalist in Athens. "It could be a deterrent, like 'Oh God, there's so much pressure. Or it can be, 'Wow, there's a lot of people cheering for me, I'm gonna do really good' ... That can lift you and carry you through the performance of a lifetime."

Nothing to worry about - there's only about a billion Chinese watching.