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China downplays expectations for Vancouver Games

BEIJING (AP) — After dominating the Summer Olympics in Beijing two years ago, China downplayed expectations Thursday for a similarly strong performance at the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver.

Winter sports have been slower to catch on in China, though Chinese women were expected to have strong showings in freestyle skiing, snowboarding halfpipe, speedskating and curling. Pairs figure skating was another possible bright spot.

"China is still not among the best in many winter sports," said Zhao Yinggang, director of the Winter Sports Management Center at the General Administration of Sports. "We still haven't participated in all the events, we don't have many potential gold medalists and our overall strength is still lagging behind the best countries."

However, China has made continuous improvement in winter sports, driven by a state-run sports system that identifies promising athletes when they are young. They live and train year-round with other athletes, working toward a goal of one day competing at the Olympics.

China is sending its largest-ever Winter Olympics delegation to Vancouver, including 91 athletes. That compares with 71 at the previous Winter Games in Turin, where China won 11 medals: two gold, four silver and five bronze.

By contrast, China won 51 golds at the Beijing Olympics, topping the standings for the first time.

Zhao would not put a figure on how many medals China expected in Vancouver.

"It's hard to say how many gold medals we must win. In general, it should be no fewer than the previous Olympics," he told reporters.

Pairs figure skater Tong Jian, who is seeking his first Olympic medal after finishing fourth in Turin, hopes the games will spur winter sports development in China.

"We still don't have so many ice rinks and ski parks like there are in North America," he said. "I hope that through our hard work in competitions, Chinese will have more and more interest in winter sports and will participate in these events. If more people take on winter sports, then that's when our Winter Olympics results will get better."

The Vancouver Olympics begin on Feb. 12 and close on Feb. 28.