By Ian Ransom
SYDNEY (Reuters) - China shrugged off badminton's biggest Olympic scandal to sweep all five titles at London four years ago but the Asian super-power is trying to keep a lid on expectations of another bumper gold medal haul at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
The peerless team that set up the 'Great Haul of China' in London will line up almost unchanged at Rio, anchored by men's singles great Lin Dan and women's champion Li Xuerui.
So strong were the Chinese in 2012 that they swept the titles without the reigning world champion women's doubles pairing of Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, who were expelled from the tournament in disgrace.
Wang and Yu were among eight players disqualified for deliberately playing to lose pool round matches to secure more favorable draws in the knockout rounds.
In Rio, all of China's singles and doubles contenders are expected to vie for podium places but the days of gold medal-deciders fought exclusively by shuttlers in identical red shirts may be gone for good.
World badminton has moved the Olympic goalposts by limiting nations to two singles entrants in each event, down from the three at London and previous Games.
The move was intended to increase competition but naturally prompted grumblings in China of a containment strategy.
With the new limits, fewer team mates means more pressure on the remaining Chinese to perform for a nation which has become used to gold flowing from the badminton arena.
“Actually, I don’t believe it’s discrimination against China, but the rule came out and we just accept it," Olympic women's singles champion Li Xuerui told Reuters in Sydney on Wednesday.
Li, who upset compatriot Wang Yihan for the gold at London, returns to Rio with Wang again among her biggest threats.
World number six Wang Shixian, who competed at London, would have qualified under the former regime but the reigning Asian champion misses out.
"Maybe (we feel) it’s a pity that there are three of us but we can only enter two," added Li.
CLOSING THE GAP
Since London, other nations have been closing the gap and the tournament will open in Brazil without Chinese players dominating the world rankings in every event.
Li is currently ranked fourth behind Spanish world number one Carolina Marin, second-ranked Thai sensation Ratchanok Intanon and Wang Yihan.
There is little prospect of a shake-up to the rankings at the season-ending Australian Badminton Open in Sydney this week.
After breezing through her opening match at the Sydney Olympic Park Sports Centre on Wednesday, the 25-year-old Li forecast a much tougher run for China at Rio.
"Yes, London was London, now it’s a new Olympic cycle," she said. "The whole world’s level has improved, so I think it will be difficult for all countries. So, we just need to worry about our own game.
“Everyone’s got a chance. It can’t be said that there are just a few contenders. It’s possible for any player to go all the way.”
With its richly-funded programs and punishing training regimes, China's Soviet-style sports system has been an assembly line for Olympic champions in sports like badminton and table tennis, but it has also inadvertently become an exporter for coaching talent.
Top teams, including European powerhouse Denmark, have employed Chinese coaching consultants, while former world champion Ratchanok has credited her current mentor Xie Zhuhua for much of her success.
Along with Spaniard Marin, Ratchanok has repeatedly pricked China's aura of invincibility at high-profile tournaments in recent years and has no fear of the Chinese at Rio.
"Before when I was young, if I beat the Chinese players I would feel very happy, very proud of myself," she told Reuters at her hotel in Sydney's Olympic Park precinct.
"But now there are many countries like Japan, India, Korea.
"Many young players (are) coming up and I think now it’s not the Chinese players only. There are a lot of players going up, so I have to look at, not only the Chinese, (but) just look at who is getting better.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)