Chinese weightlifter faces heavy pressure

Aug. 07, 2008, 10:56 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) When Chinese weightlifter Chen Xiexia grips the bellbar Saturday, the weights won't be her only burden.

As the favorite in the women's 48 kilogram (106 pound) category, the 25-year-old world champion is under pressure to give the host nation a perfect start to the Olympics.

The competition is scheduled to end at about the same time as the women's 10-meter air rifle - the first two events of the games - so if Chen wins she could receive the first gold medal.

If she fails, her disappointment will be shared by millions of Chinese who count on weightlifting - a sport China normally dominates - to boost the country's overall medal tally.

The ponytailed native of Guangdong province showed no nerves on Thursday, barely glancing at the pack of reporters watching her practice. Afterward she declined to talk even to Chinese journalists, while team officials sought to downplay the expectations.

"In terms of weightlifting, whether it would be the first gold medal in the games or not doesn't make any difference," Chinese weightlifting boss Ma Wenguang said. "I never put unnecessary pressure on my lifters."

Women's team coach Ma Wenhui said the pressure would only help the Chinese athletes, "because we can turn it into power."

China has the strongest team, he said, although the rest of the world has "one or two lifters who can compete with us in every category."

China won five weightlifting gold medals in the last Olympics and hopes to do even better in Beijing, where it's represented by six men and four women - the maximum allowed.

While Chinese women are big favorites in the 58 kg (128 pound), 69 kg (152 pound) and 75 kg (165 pound) categories, Chen is coming into the lightest division with only a slight edge on her closest opponents.

They are both from Turkey - defending Olympic titleholder Nurcan Taylan and 20-year-old Sibel Ozkan, who made the Chinese camp nervous after reportedly saying that she was lifting world-record weights in practice.

Taiwan and South Korea also have strong challengers, while Thailand has two lifters aiming for medals in the category.

"In the women's 48 kg, we have 14 lifters competing against each other and everyone wants to get a medal," Thailand coach Zhang Baoshun said. "We are aiming to learn from China because they are very powerful in this sport."

That's certainly true for Chen's division, where she was competing with world-record holder Yang Lian and former world champion Wang Mingjuan for a spot on the Chinese team.

The coaches picked Chen, who won last year's world championship and this year's Chinese title, at the last minute after determining she had recovered from an injury she suffered in July.

To win as many golds as possible, China's 10 lifters are spread out across nine of the 15 weight categories. The Chinese have only doubled up in one weight class, with Liao Hui and Shi Zhiyong both competing for the men's 69 kg (152 pound) title.