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Mass Medal Preparedness

China’s Olympic training system demands its athletes give their all—and not expect much in return.

It’s a structured, planned, and government-funded system specifically designed to churn out winners.

While other countries around the world build Olympic teams with professional training systems that raise funds through sports federations and sponsors, China continues to maintain a centralized system—modeled off the Soviet-era sports bureaucracy—that prepares young bodies for the Olympics often from an early age.

Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s official athletics agencies launched what was called Project 119—the gold medal target for the national team. Today, ambitions are running high for the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The athletic selection process begins with little children. Through sports academies in every major city and province, Olympic candidates are chosen from among children as young as five years old, often based on physical proportions alone.

For China’s strongest athletic fields such as gymnastics, diving, weight-lifting, and ping-pong, select youngsters adhere to schedules requiring they train most of their waking hours. Officials are quick to note these children also receive a few hours of schooling every day.

Tracked children later graduate to centralized sports academies, and finally finish their training programs at one of the country’s 150 national sports camps, which compete for the honor of placing graduates on an Olympic team.

<p.Any who bow out of the system, for example due to injury, are on their own.

A lifetime of training culminates at the Olympics. And though it may sound quaint, each of these specially honed athletes is dead serious about making the gold standard his or her only standard for success.

The system obviously works. In 2008, China’s Olympic athletes delivered a staggering record fifty-one gold medals. The last country whose team took home fifty gold medals from an Olympics was the Soviet Union in 1988.

In China “the national training system’s foundation is based on winning glory for the nation,” said Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.

“The emergence of the modern Olympic movement coincided with China’s search for a new national identity and internationalization from the late 19th century to this moment,” Xu said. “Not surprisingly, given the close link between sports, national fate and honor, it was a natural step for the Chinese to mobilize all national resources to win medals in sports arenas.”

Stage Direction

Indeed, China’s decision to re-enter the International Olympic Committee in 1979, after a twenty-seven-year hiatus, was embedded in an historical interest in projecting power.

According to Xu, successive governments with dramatically different political systems spanning imperialism, republicanism, and communism, from the late Qing period until today, shared a common view of the Olympic Games: Each saw it as an arena to demonstrate national strength and gain international recognition.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Western sports were introduced to China. But it wasn’t until the triumphs of the Soviet sports bureaucracy and the evolving political environment of the Cold War that China chose to build and enter its own national teams.

Soviet leaders sought Beijing’s support in sports and other international arenas. Through Soviet backing, the Chinese leadership was encouraged to send an Olympic delegation to the Helsinki Games in 1952. During the same Olympics, the People’s Republic of China decided to boycott the games to denounce the IOC’s recognition of the Republic of China.

“The shared political and sports ideologies” of the Soviets and Chinese “explain why both countries had identical sports organizational structure in the first place,” said Xu.

In 1979, China re-established formal diplomatic relations with the United States after nearly a decade of rapprochement. For the Soviets, the Olympic Games at that time continued to provide a forum for demonstrating the superiority of the communist bureaucracy. For China, re-entry offered a diverging path for development and a chance to engage with the international community.

At every level, participants in the national sports system were informed that China’s top goal was to win Olympic gold medals.

No Fun and Games

Some say the ability to produce medal-winners should not be the sole gauge of the system’s success. Xu and the Beijing-based Southern Weekly sports commentator Guan Jun are among those who have criticized the all-or-nothing approach to building national teams embraced by the Chinese government.

The system in fact “takes away individual joy in sports,” Xu argued. “Secondly, it eats away support for mass sports and mass physical exercise. Thirdly, state control of sports has led to substantial abuse of power and corruption.

“And fourthly,” Xu said, “the system has yet to show its advantage in men’s soccer (football) and other so-called ‘big ball’ sports, and even for a majority of field and track competitions.”

Guan sees power politics behind the centralized training system. Author of The Shadow of the 2008 Olympics, Guan argues the chief aim of the Beijing Olympics “was entirely political.” “By hosting the Olympic Games and producing shining results, the (Communist) party was able to reinforce its legitimacy.”

Guan noted, however, that national sports training is getting more public scrutiny in China. Some have raised questions about the amount of public money spent to achieve Olympic medal goals, given China’s unmet health care needs, for example. Some say apportioning such a sizable yet opaque budget to meet national sports objectives wastes resources.

“Equally detrimental is the fact that the public ends up misunderstanding the function of sports,” Guan said.

In countries such as Britain, Olympic systems rely on personally motivated athletes, which create a role for sport outside national goals but inside society.

Dan Chugg, political counsellor at the British Embassy in Beijing said in his country, “We have some sports such as football, which are hugely successful and some of the best teams in the world are in the English premier league. The sort of excitement that comes around that is one of the huge advantages of sport in the UK.”

“Whether England is playing in the Euro Championships or the World Cup, it pretty much stops the country for a couple of hours while people go and watch.”

Many experts say China may be poised to cultivate more independent athletes, such as tennis star Li Na.

Li was first groomed through the national sports system, which she joined at age five. After leaving China’s national tennis team, her breakthrough achievements, most notably at the 2011 French Open, have raised possibilities for a more open, national training system.

Chugg said most countries are gravitating further from central planning and toward more professionalized sports.

“It’s not just something that people do in their evenings, in their spare time, but something they should have more as a job.”

Diana Bates is a Caixin staff reporter.

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From the Caixin Editors

An editorial published four years ago in Caijing magazine lambasted China’s state-run, Soviet-style Olympics athlete training program for emphasizing medal-winning rather than sportsmanship, physical fitness, and fun. The Chinese government moreover “spent a fortune” to train from childhood the athletes who won fifty-one gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, with “euphoria” as the only real reward, wrote then-chief editor Hu Shuli. “We believe it’s time to say good-bye to the ‘State Sports System’ and launch comprehensive reform for athletic training,” she concluded. Quickly, however, Hu’s plea was drowned out by cheering state media and training system supporters, who brushed off critics by pointing to Team China’s trophy case, which held the most golds in the world that year. This summer, state-trained graduates are competing at another Olympics in London, while Hu edits the Chinese-language New Century Weekly and its English sister Caixin, the publisher of the following report, which has helped keep the torch of her editorial position burning.

By Diana Bates