Sporting relations point the way forward

By Chen Xiangfeng (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-04-14 06:49

China and Japan may be vying with one another on track and field and in the pool to become Asia's sports powerhouse, but away from the public gaze they have intensified the exchange of players and coaches to ensure both sides come out top.

The latest cooperative effort comes in the form of Japan's high-profile synchronized swimming coach, Masayo Imura. Called the "Godmother" of Japanese synchronized swimming, Imura signed a contract with the Chinese team after the Doha Asian Games, where China dethroned Asia's long-time leaders Japan both in the team and duet events.

The importance of Imura's move can be gauged from the fact that she is the first Japanese coach of a Chinese national team.

Premier Wen Jiabao recites a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai with students of Ritsumeikan elementary school in Kyoto on Friday. AFP

Though some extreme fans in the two countries have criticized her move, most people and the media have hailed it as a significant step forward in cooperation and trust in sport relations.

Imura guided Japan's synchronized swimmers for 30 years and helped them win three gold, one silver and four bronze medals in the Asian and Olympic Games.

Now, she is determined to lead the Chinese side to the victory podium at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

The results of her efforts were on display at her first competition, the just-concluded World Championships in Melbourne, where China showed it could be a serious contender at the Beijing Olympiad.

Twin sisters Jiang Tingting and Jiang Wenwen eleveted the Chinese synchronized swimming to a new level by taking fourth place in the duet technical routine.

It was the best result for a Chinese synchronized swimming team either at the World Championship or the Olympics. The previous best for China at these competitions both in the team and duet events was sixth.

It would have done any coach proud, but not Imura. "They should have performed better," she said. "I didn't set any goal for them before the competition, but I hoped they could excel."

"Their personalities and bodies are as excellent, as good as world-class synchronized swimmers," Imura said about the twins. "But they lack strength and need to improve their skills."

Apart from synchronized swimming, ping-pong also plays an important role in improving bilateral ties. Japanese teenage sensation Fukuhara Ai is one of those who has added substance and glamour to the exchanges.

The 18-year-old, known as "Ai-chan", or Little Ai in Japan, played in the Chinese ping-pong league from June 2005 before she decided to sit out this season to study in Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University. She played for Northeast China's Liaoning club with star Chinese players Wang Nan and Guo Yue.

Fukuhara concedes that the super-competitive Chinese league has made her a better player. "The Chinese league is the most competitive in the world, and I have learned a lot from it," she said.

Chinese fans just love Fukuhara, who chose to study Chinese and found herself involved in a rumoured love-affair with world No 1 men's player Wang Liqing.

Premier Wen Jiabao sits on a tractor during a visit to a Japanese farm in Kyoto on Friday.   REUTERS

As far as other sports are concerned, the Chinese Football Association accepts that Japan has set a good example at the grassroots level for the development of the game, and China has something to learn from it.

The East-Asian Four Countries Soccer Tournament (including the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea) and the A3 Champions Cup (an annual competition between the best clubs from China, Japan and the ROK) are part of AFC's efforts to create a more competitive platform for football.

Also, the Chinese baseball team has been spending a month or two every year in Japan in the recent past in a bid to boost its chances of winning a medal at the Beijing Olympics.

Last year's four-team Konami Cup Asia Series in Tokyo (with teams from Japan, China, the ROK and Chinese Taipei) was hailed as a timely attempt to lift baseball's level in Asia.

China is open to further Japanese-Chinese cooperation to give its national team a boost.

(China Daily 04/14/2007 page2)

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