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China puts wind up elite with recruitment of top skipper

BEIJING (Reuters) - China launched its first serious step toward establishing itself among the sailing super-powers on Friday with the announcement of a government-funded Volvo Ocean Race entry skippered by one of the world's leading helmsmen.

The world's most populous nation has previously failed to put its considerable potential into a sport regarded by many as elitist.

But Friday's launch of its Team Sanya entry in a swanky Beijing hotel, suggested it now had designs on changing all that to match its increasing economic might.

New Zealander Mike Sanderson, 40, is a former twice winner of the Volvo Ocean Race -- the sport's premier monohull offshore race -- and his recruitment is a major coup for the Chinese at the peak of his powers.

Certainly Sanderson is convinced that China can threaten the established big guns in sailing which include his own nation, the United States and France.

"We may not win this time but we're building to be a real force next time," he told reporters before the official unveiling.

Volvo Ocean Race campaigns are not undertaken lightly, costing well over $10 million to put together for an event which tests its participants to the limit over nearly 40,000 nautical miles and nine months of grueling racing.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

The fact that the Chinese government, in funds funneled through a tourist agency for Sanya, has taken the rare step of backing the bid is significant, Sanderson said.

"They tend not to do things by halves.

"There's a major untapped potential in China," he continued. "Somebody asked me if we would be backing off in this race like a slow Formula 1 car getting caught and I told them 'no chance of that'.

"In all these races there can be a hot favorite that can come unstuck at any stage during a leg. If that happens we'll be there to pounce."

Sanderson said he would now be busy preparing the boat for its debut in mid-August for the race's fastnet test and recruiting a crew.

He expected "four or five" Chinese sailors to feature at least once in an 11-strong crew which can be rotated during the 10 legs of the event.

Sanderson said the next edition would be the most competitive in the history of the race which began 38 years ago as the Whitbread Round the World Race. Top skippers involved in 2011-2012 include Briton Ian Walker, American Kenny Read and France's Franck Cammas.

The Volvo Ocean Race begins in Alicante, Spain on October 29 and concludes in early July 2012 in Galway, Ireland after visiting eight other ports in four continents.

(Editing by Ossian Shine)

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