Liu Xiang (left) defeats Allen Johnson (centre) in the Golden Grand Prix, Shanghai (AFP/Getty Images) © Copyright

Women's distances and Liu Xiang ready for centre stage - Chinese National Games preview

It's time for another edition of the prestigious National Games in China (16-22 October). The 10th edition of the Games will be the first to be held outside the Beijing-Shanghai-Guangzhou triangle, the three major sport cities in China. Nanjing Olympic Center stadium in Jiangsu province will be the venue for the athletics part of the games featuring most of the Olympic sports and some additional local ones. Every athletics fan remembers Wang Junxia and Qu Yunxia setting World records in Beijing 1993 and Dong Yanmei in 1997; some may even remember Zhu Jianhua's World High Jump record of 2.38m in Shanghai 1983.

Prepping for Beijing 2008

Although the 2005 Games will not be looking for new World records, the Chinese have progressed nicely during this season. The Asian Championships showed that their strength is much bigger now in their own continent, and three years remain for China to reach the same levels worldwide in their own Olympic Games in Beijing 2008.

Multi-tasking for Sun, Xing

Although some athletes have retired since the 2001 Games, as usual in China, a surprisingly large number of the top contestants are still competing and looking to renew their titles. In the women's events former 5000m world record holder Dong Yanmei won 5000/10,000m double in 2001 and repeating her 10,000m title from 1997 and bettering her second place finish in the 5000m in the 1997 Games. Dong stopped her career after a poor 2002 season, but that doesn't mean that women's distance running would be a low-key event here. During the past for years Sun Yingjie and Xing Huina have risen not just to the top of Chinese distance running, but to the world top as well. Sun claimed a bronze medal at the 2003 World Championships in Paris before winning 2004 World Half Marathon title, while Xing is the reigning Olympic champion in the 10,000m.

Sun, who was third in the 5000 and second over 10,000m at the 2001 Games, has been entered in the 5000/10000m and marathon, but the schedule will force her to choose between the two longer events: the marathon takes place on Sunday morning in Beijing while the 10,000 takes place on Monday night in Nanjing. Xing is looking to win three events, the 1500/5000/10000m - in 2001 as a 17-year-old, she finished seventh in the 1500m and second in the 5000m.

In the 10,000, the two top names may get fierce competition from Zhou Chunxiu, should she choose to run on the track instead of her favourite event, the marathon. Zhou finished fifth in the Helsinki World Championships and has run a personal best of 2:23:24 with her win at the Seoul International Marathon.

Women's sprints

In the women's sprints it will be a farewell to 28-year-old Li Xuemei, the double short sprint champion at both the 1997 and 2001 Games. Li has been hampered by injuries since 1998 and will not be looking at a chance to win this time, but instead will say goodbye to athletics. 22-year-old Huang Xiaoxiao will be searching for a triple win in the 400m/400m hurdles and the 4x400m relay. She is the favourite in both individual events and her native Shandong province is the strongest candidate for the relay as well. Huang finished fifth in Helsinki with a personal best of 54.34s in the semifinal. She will also be aiming for the Asian record of 53.96 in the process.

Parade of Helsinki finalists in the women's field events

In the field events and heptathlon eight out of nine winners from the 2001 Games have been entered. The top competitors include Gao Shuying, who recently set an Asian record in the pole vault at 4.53; shot putter Li Meiju, seventhth in Helsinki; discus thrower Song Aimin, 10th in Helsinki; and triple jumper Huang Qiuyan who was ninth at the World Championships.

A pair of reigning champions will have a hard time repeating their success. Gu Yuan won the hammer in 2001, but this time will meet with world junior record holder Zhang Wenxiu who has thrown 73.24 this season and finished fifth in Helsinki. Jing Xuezhu, the 2001 high jump winner, will face a new name that has emerged in this event this year: 16-year-old Zheng Xingyuan who raised the national junior record to 1.92 this season and also competed in the Helsinki World Championships.

Again, Liu in the spotlight

In the men's events the natural spotlight falls on the reigning Olympic champion and co-world record holder in the 110m hurdles Liu Xiang. The 22-year-old was a close second in Helsinki, but nonetheless can't just ease to the win in Nanjing as he has a challenger at home in China. 21-year-old Shi Dongpeng has run 13.29 this season and was the fastest non-qualifier in Helsinki.

In the 400m hurdles at the Asian Championships, a surprise Chinese medallist - 21-year-old Shandong athlete Zhang Shibao - emerged in Incheon with personal best of 49.65. He will be looking to break the national record of 49.25s set in 1998 by Tan Chunhua. 28-year-old Tan is also in the competition and as the reigning champion from 2001, and with a season's best 50.06, has an outside chance of defending.

Men's field events

The men's Triple Jump features two 17m + jumpers, Li Yanxi and Gu Junjie. Li has been injured since reaching a personal best of 17.15m at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene in June, but Gu won the recent Asian Championships with a wind assisted 16.90m jump. The Pole Vault features Liu Feiliang, the current national record holder at 5.70, and former national record holder Zhang Hongwei. Zhang Qi tied the Shot Put national record of 19.78m in 2005, and will be looking to better the mark co-held by Ma Yongfeng from 1990. Wu Tao finished third at the 2001 Games Discus as an 18-year-old, but the Liaoning athlete will be a strong favourite after having reached a personal best 64.28m earlier this season. 33-year-old Li Rongxiang is the only favourite in the men's Javelin. The national record holder at 84.29m from 2000, Li has thrown a season's best 81.61m and is also the reigning champion.

Fast walking too!

As expeced, Walking events will naturally be very strong. Depending on the weather, even world records could be challenged. In the 20km, Zhu Hongjun is second on the 2005 world list after his Asian record of 1:17:41 while Han Yucheng has the world leading mark for the 50km distance, also an Asian record of 3:36:20. Jiang Jing is the best female walker this season in China with a 1:27:19 clocking over the 20km distance.

The 10th National Games will start with the marathon which is contested during the Beijing International Marathon on Sunday 16 October. Other events begin in Nanjing on Monday 17, with the competition running through Saturday (22 October). This year, the schedule does not include a rest day.

-National games history

1st Beijing 1959

2nd Beijing 1965

3rd Beijing 1975

4th Beijing 1979

5th Shanghai 1983
highlight: men's high jump WR 2.38m by Zhu Jianhua.

6th Guangzhou 1987
highlight: many good marks in women's field events including a 20.95m shot by Li Meisu and a 65.18m discus by Hou Xuemei.

7th Beijing 1993
highlight: multiple world records, 3000/10000m by Wang Junxia and 1500m by Qu Yunxia.

8th Shanghai 1997
highlight: extremely high class competition by women overall, world record in the 5000m. Li Xuemei 10.79s 100m/22.01s 200m double.

9th Guangzhou 2001
highlight: nothing compared to two previous editions, but several world class marks including a world record in the women's 20km walk and two Asian records in 400m hurdles (tied) and triple jump.

Mirko Jalava for the IAAF