By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse
As it stands, China’s hopes of an unprecedented Olympic gold medal in track cycling currently lie with women’s sprint star Shuang Guo, women who turned in the fastest time in Friday’s sprint qualifying round.
But in 17 months time, the medal odds could look decidedly better for the hosts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and it could be thanks to one of the sport’s biggest legends.
China’s first Olympic track medal came through Yong Hua who won silver in the women’s 500 meter time trial at Athens in 2004. But former four-time Olympic champion Daniel Morelon, who also amassed seven world sprint titles during his reign in the 1960s and ‘70s, is the man who could improve China’s track fortunes.
The Frenchman, a former coach of five-time consecutive women’s sprint world champion Felicia Ballanger, swapped his prominent coaching post in France to work with the Chinese five months ago.
There’s work to be done up to and beyond Beijing if China is to join Britain, France and Australia in becoming a track world power. But Morelon is confident that the Asian giant’s “well-built” athletes can step up to the mark.
“For the position they are in, China is doing not too badly,” he told AFP at the world track cycling championships Friday.
“There’s no national structure below the senior level, and it is totally different from France where the best riders are picked out when they’re in their early teens and primed to compete in the junior world championships,” he noted. “China hasn’t got any of that yet, so they’re naturally coming into this port with a bit of a handicap.
“But I think in the future that’s all going to change. They’ve got great potential and with two velodromes in Beijing they’re starting to get the facilities.”
Having a modern velodrome in Manchester has worked wonders with the British team, which in recent years has added sprint awards to its more traditional medal haul from pursuit events.
Morelon’s wealth of knowledge in everything from the logistics of running a successful team to the tactics of winning a sprint is what China’s national federation was looking for when the French star was hired.
Guo is currently China’s best Olympic hope, and continues the women’s sprint competition at Mallorca having won bronze last year, when she also came third in the keirin. Her 11.149 in Friday’s qualifying round was the fastest of the day and Guo is among the favorites to medal.
With on-form Briton Victoria Pendleton, reigning champion Natallia Tsylinskaya of Belarussia and Australian ace Anna Meares to contend with, Morelon admits the 21-year-old Guo has a fight on her hands.
“She’s got what it takes to win a world championship gold,” he added. “The last time out she was third, hopefully she’s improved from last year but it’s not going to be easy here.”
Winning the sprint comes down to two main ingredients.
“You have to go really fast, but also have a well-developed tactical sense,” Morelon said. “But going fast is crucial, especially at the start of the competition if you want to avoid coming up against bigger rivals later on.
“But if she (Guo) makes the podium, it will be a very good result for us.”
China has a total of 12 athletes at the world track championship this year, a result in itself and a positive sign for the future. And Morelon hopes his achievements as both rider and coach benefit them further.
“The Chinese knew all about Felicia Ballanger and my role in that streak,” he said. “I suppose you could say that’s why I’m here! They’re committed to making big improvements, but they have to get over the mindset of being amateur.
“They haven’t reached the stage yet where they’re really thinking in professional terms. But they’ve got the means. As far as I’m concerned they’re going in the right direction.”
Women – Sprint (Qualifying)
1. Shuang Guo (PRC) 11.149
2. Simona Krupecskaite (Lit) 11.191
3. Victoria Pendleton (GB) 11.194
4. Clara Sanchez (F) 11.270
5. Anna Meares (Aus) 11.278
5. Natallia Tsylinskaya (Blr) 11.346
6. Lisandra Rodriguez Guerra (Cub) 11.365
7. Willy Kanis (Nl) 11.408
8. Svetlana Grankovskaya (Rus) 11.444
9. Anna Blyth (GB) 11.497
10. Yvonne Hijgenaar (Nl) 11.503
11. Daniela Larreal (Vz) 11.541
12. Jinjie Gong (PRC) 11.563
13. Christin Muche (G) 11.610
14. Jennie Reed (USA) 11.617
15. Lulu Zheng (PRC) 11.656
16. Dana Gloss (G) 11.667
17. Jane Gerisch (G) 11.679
18. Diana Garcia (Col) 11.682
19. Miriam Welte (G) 11.743
20. Oksana Grishina (Rus) 11.809
21. Kristine Bayley (Aus) 11.957
22. Renata Dabrowska (Pol) 11.972
23. Helena Casas (Sp) 12.596Did Not Qualify
Tamilla Abassova (Rus) 14.561