Wei Yongli anchors China to 4x100m gold at the Asian Games (© Getty Images)
They may have a population of 1.4billion, but China has never managed to get a sprinter into a 100m, 200m or 400m final across the past 14 editions of the IAAF World Championships.
But with the 15th edition of the championships due to be held for the first time in China in August, the host nation’s sprinters are hoping to cause a few surprises at the Birds’ Nest Stadium this summer.
Wei Yongli, winner of the 100m at the 2014 Asian Games and 2013 Asian Championships, is arguably the most in-form sprinter in China at this early stage of the season.
The 24-year-old equalled the national indoor 60m record of 7.19 on three consecutive occasions last month. The first of those marks came at the National Grand Prix meeting in Shanghai where she tied the mark set by Li Xuemei at the 2001 IAAF World Indoor Championships.
One week later, Wei raced to another 7.19 to win in Xianlin before matching that time again in Beijing the following week.
“It was definitely a pity,” said Wei, who is currently at a training camp in Fuzhou in southeast China. “I really wanted to break the record.
“I started my indoor season in Europe where I competed in four events and then returned to China to run in three meets,” she added. “My results had been improving competition by competition. The three races in China, as dramatic as they were, proved my progress. Now I am looking forward to the outdoor season.”
Wei will run her first 100m race of 2015 at the Seiko Golden Grand Prix next month in Kawasaki, where she will try to meet the 11.33 entry standard for the World Championships in Beijing.
“I know compared with my PB of 11.29, the entry standard is a little bit high for me, but I am confident that I can meet the standard,” she said. “I will compete in the World Championships and hopefully I can make history this time.”
Wei set her PB in the Indian city of Pune when she claimed the 100m title at the 2013 Asian Championships. She also won last year’s Asian Games title in Inchon in 11.48. But Wei is under no illusion about the difference in the quality of competition on the global level compared to the continental circuit.
“Winning in Pune and Incheon helped to boost my confidence, but there is still a huge gap between Asian sprinting and world sprinting,” she said. “In Asia only a few women can sprint to sub 11.20, but in the world dozens of female sprinters can run sub-11.00. So the World Championships in August will be a different experience for me.”
Wei has competed at the past two editions of the World Championships, but only in the 4x100m. She had something of a baptism of fire on her debut appearance. Aged just 19 at the time, she false-started in her 4x100m heat to end China’s chances in the event before it even began.
Two years later, and this time running the anchor leg, the Chinese team safely got the baton around, but their 44.22 clocking was only good enough for seventh place in their heat.
This year in Beijing, not only does Wei want to contest an individual event; she also wants to make amends in the relay.
“Our relay team ran 42.83 in 2014,” said Wei of China’s gold-medal-winning run at the Asian Games. “I believe we have established ourselves as a serious contender on the world stage. Making the final in Beijing is our goal.”
Men’s sprints on the rise
Also in Inchon, China’s men’s 4x100m team broke the Asian record as the quartet of Chen Shiwei, Xie Zhenye, Su Bingtian and Zhang Peimeng crossed the finish line in 37.99, beating the previous mark of 38.03 set by Japan.
“For me, the 100m and relay events are equally important,” said Zhang, who holds the Chinese 100m record at 10.00. “Now we have three members from our team that can run 10.30 or faster. I think that shows our competitiveness.”
Aside from his national 100m record, Zhang is also the second-fastest Chinese sprinter ever in the 200m after his former national record of 20.47 was beaten by 2010 Youth Olympic champion Xie Zhenye last October with his 20.44 clocking.
Zhang and Xie are just two of China’s up-and-coming sprinters. Two-time Asian champion Su Bingtian broke the national indoor 60m record last year when he just missed out on a medal at the IAAF World Indoor Championships by less than a hundredth of a second.
One year before that, Mo Youxue became the first Chinese athlete to win a global 100m title when triumphing at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Donetsk. Mo will still be a junior in 2015, but showed good progress during the indoor season to suggest he might make it on to China’s team for Beijing this summer.
After breaking the national 100m record at the 2013 World Championships to narrowly miss the 100m final by the margin of 0.009, 28-year-old Zhang experienced a relatively lacklustre year in 2014. His season’s best in the 100m was 10.17 and he finished outside of the medals at the Asian Games. But Zhang believes everything is still under control.
“We had expected the decline in performance last year,” said Zhang, who is also currently at the training camp in Fuzhou. “On the one hand, I was bothered by the injury in my right knee. But on the other hand, I was on the peak of my performance curve in 2013, and 2014 could be seen as the trough, which is quite necessary if I want to reach another peak this season.
“Although I am not a young sprinter any more, I feel I still have room to improve,” he added.
Zhang will also start his outdoor season in Kawasaki. His focus this year is on the 100m and relay and he won’t compete in any 200m event internationally.
“The Beijing World Championships is our most important task this year,” said Zhang’s coach Li Qing. “The competition in men’s 100m is always brutal and Zhang will stand little chance (of reaching the final) if he is not at his highest level.”
“We will try to keep him in good form and avoid injuries or sickness,” added Li. “Hopefully he can give his best in Beijing.”
Vincent Wu for the IAAF