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 Olympic gold medalists.
Today Chen Yun (yun means cloud) trains at the Weifang City Sports School, one of 3,000 state-run athletics academies that consign nearly 400,000 youngsters to a form of athletic servitude. Sitting under the watchful eyes of her coach and a man who identifies himself as the school's "propaganda director," Cloud tells me that weight-lifting is her favorite sport. Any hobbies? I ask. "Weight-lifting," she answers. Anything Cloud likes besides weight-lifting? "Weight-lifting," she repeats. I try again. Cloud glances at the two men near her. Behind them is a poster of Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic and architect of China's state sports system. "Once, I liked to run in the fields near my village," she begins softly. The propaganda official steps in. "But now, she prefers weight-lifting," he says. "Her goal is to become a star athlete and make China proud." Cloud looks down at her callused hands, which can thrust 35 kg into the air but are now shaking from nerves. "I prefer weight-lifting now," she says. "I want to become a star athlete and make China proud."
Pride is a difficult concept to quantify, but for China, the Olympics provide a simple calculation for its ascent. Two decades ago in Seoul, China won just five golds. By 2004 in Athens, the country's 32-medal gold rush was second only to that of the U.S. Now China is hoping its home-turf advantage in Beijing will vault it into first place. If the People's Republic succeeds, the controversies over protests in Tibet, arms for Darfur, Steven Spielberg's pulling out as adviser to the Games all that loss of face to date will have been worth it. It will also be a balm for a nation still hurting from the death of 70,000 in the May 12 earthquake.
For most Chinese, victory in Beijing will not only prove their country's status as a potential superpower but also erase its historic humiliation by colonial powers. Stupefied by opium, cowed by Western firepower, China was dismissed at the outset of the 20th century as the "sick man of Asia." Indeed, the first article Chairman Mao ever published was on the importance of sporting success to the national psyche. "Our nation is wanting in strength," he fretted back in 1917. "If our bodies are not strong, how can we attain our goals and make ourselves respected?" Winning, Mao and his followers deemed, would be a fitting way for a vanquished empire to avenge itself.
Sport is hardly the only arena in which China aims to be faster, higher and stronger. A little more than three decades ago, the People's Republic was an isolated, agrarian nation whose closest international ally was Albania. Today China is making new partners around the world as it vies with the U.S. and Europe in the race to gobble up markets and natural resources. Its trade with Africa and Latin America has increased sixfold since 2001. It is the world's top consumer of cement, grain, meat, coal, copper and steel. Back at home, China has transformed itself into a nation of superlatives, each record burnishing its reborn pride. The country boasts the world's biggest dam (the Three Gorges), the largest corps of engineers (350,000 new graduates every year) and the most urban areas with a population above 1 million (more than 100). The People's Republic is the most wired nation on earth (215 million-plus Netizens) and has enjoyed one of the longest sustained economic expansions in history (three decades of on average nearly 10% annual growth).
Chinese diplomats insist their homeland's ascent shouldn't threaten the rest of the world. They characterize China's emergence as a "peaceful rise," a cuddly if rather dissonant phrase. But no amount of diplomatic niceties can cloak state-funded efforts to win, especially when individual freedoms are suppressed for the greater national good.
Take sports. After Beijing won the right seven years ago to host the 2008 Olympics, the country's State General Administration of Sports unveiled a Cabinet-approved policy called "Winning pride at the Olympics." The program built on China's long-standing "gold-medal strategy" of targeting sports that offer the most Olympic golds because of different weight classes or race lengths. (Fencing, for instance, holds 10 golds, while canoeing/kayaking has 16.) It didn't matter that most Chinese knew nothing of these sports. The point was to accumulate gold medals. Women's sports, which tend to receive less funding in the West, received a cash infusion. Around the same time, the nation's athletics czars started the "119 project," which aimed for success in the few remaining disciplines in which the country was still weak. By the Sports Ministry's count, 119 gold medals (now 122) were up for grabs in water sports and track-and-field events. Why shouldn't China share in the bounty?
China is hardly the only country to build a national sports machine. In fact, the nation's athletics factories were modeled after the old Soviet-style system, which during the cold war churned out limber Romanian gymnasts and a fleet of doped-up East German swimmers. But the East bloc is long gone and with it, sports by diktat. Today China is one of the few nations, apart from the likes of North Korea and Cuba, to commit so many state resources to athletics. While some young Chinese choose to attend sports schools, others, like Cloud, are little more than pawns of the state.