China's Sports School: Crazy for Gold

Determined to knock the U.S. off the top of the Olympics podium, China's state-run sports schools are pushing their young students to the limit. Inside the medal machine

Ian Teh / Panos for TIME

China is one of the few countries in the world with academies dedicated to what many consider a rec-room pastime; at the Luneng Table-Tennis School, wannabe champions practice in a gymnasium set up with 80 tables.

A year ago, a slender girl called Cloud had no idea she would dedicate her life to lifting disks of iron above her head. Then a stranger came to her remote village in eastern China's Shandong province, took detailed measurements of her shoulder width, thigh length and waist circumference--and announced she would have the honor of serving her motherland as a weight lifter. The then 14-year-old daughter of vegetable farmers had little choice in the matter. She had been chosen to be a cog in China's vast sports machine, a multibillion-dollar apparatus designed with one primary goal in mind: churning out...

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