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Driven to Succeed
The push for medals can compel kids to suddenly start training in sports they didn't know existed before the coaches came calling. Last year Ding Liyan lined up with other students in his junior high school class to perform a peculiar test given by an official from the Qingdao City Sports School. He was asked to spread his palm and stack as many .22-cal. bullets on top of one another as he could. Ding managed a tower of eight a feat of nervelessness, a quality essential in a competitive archer. "We're only interested in children who can pile up more than six bullets," says Qingdao archery coach Qu Yuefeng, who ticks off other attributes she requires in potential students: wide shoulders, a calm demeanor and good vision. Ding fulfilled every requirement, even though he admits he's not a "very sporty boy." Training is often dull. In his first year at the school, the 14-year-old has been allowed to work on only one major aspect of archery: the release of the bowstring. But Ding isn't complaining. The Qingdao school has nice dorm rooms, helps students get into college and employs coaches who understand the virtues of rest and recovery time.
At most other Chinese sports schools, suffering is considered integral to the athletic experience. At the Weifang City Sports School, where little Cloud is being trained to be a weight lifter, most of the kids are so chronically exhausted that during their afternoon break, they collapse in eight-to-a-room iron bunks to sleep. The Weifang academy is a collection of moldy concrete buildings, with only red socialist banners to break the monotone grays. LEARN FROM OUR COMRADES AND CREATE A NEW AND GLORIOUS OLYMPICS, urges a slogan in the weight-lifting gym. Taped to a wall nearby are rows of so-called self-criticism essays that the girls have written assessing their own performances. "I must try much harder," says Cloud's paper. "I do not want to disappoint." Some practice rooms are lit by just one low-wattage bulb, while the dormitories reek of urine and sweat. There isn't a blade of grass on any of the school's athletic fields. Not that we are allowed to photograph anything the propaganda director considers "inferior aspects" of the school. Other aspects deemed unfit for photography include tattered wrestling mats, an 11-year-old student mopping a gym floor with chilblained hands, even a formation of preteen sharpshooters marching by with rifles propped on their shoulders.
The propaganda director assures us that the kids practice for only a couple of hours a day. But students I speak to without a minder present say they train for at least five hours. None of the dorm rooms I visit have any textbooks strange for a school that the propaganda director tells me is "mostly for academics, with sports training just as a spare-time activity." Wang Ting, a 15-year-old runner, looks at me blankly when I ask what she does during her time off. "I run, and I sleep," she replies. "That's my day."
An Inferiority Complex
The train-till-you-drop mentality derives, in part, from a physical-inferiority complex that's taken as fact in Chinese sports circles. "Chinese bodies are not as naturally strong as those of people from other countries," says Qingdao school principal Qiao, repeating what I am told by Sports Ministry officials. "But we can work harder than anyone else. That's our biggest advantage." Chinese women, in particular, are renowned for their ability to withstand brutal training. Unlike in the U.S., where the privatization of athletics means less money for women's sports just compare the NBA with the WNBA the Chinese state lavishes funds on its female athletes from childhood onward. Mao used to say, "Women hold up half the sky." In fact, four years ago in Athens, Chinese women did even better, winning 60% of the country's gold medals.
Then there are the less honorable methods China has used to cultivate sporting success. Just before the Sydney Games, when antidoping officials announced they would be administering a new test for the synthetic endurance booster erythropoietin, the Chinese Olympic squad was suddenly pruned about 10%. Six years earlier, at the Asian Games, 11 Chinese athletes were caught doping. Of course, athletes from other countries cheat, too witness U.S. track star Marion Jones' downfall. But there's a difference between individuals making the choice to dope and kids unknowingly swallowing whatever their sports-school coaches give them, which is what several retired Chinese athletes allege. The Sports Ministry vows that China will be clean in Beijing. But it's not clear whether the same commitment exists on the lower rungs of the sports system, where funding is based on results in national competitions. Two years ago, a sports school in northeastern Liaoning province was busted for routinely injecting students with steroids.
The last thing the Chinese government wants is a doping scandal on home soil. About $20 billion is being spent on Olympics-related preparations. But even though seven years of Olympics priming has only heightened Chinese hopes for domination, sports officials in recent weeks have scaled back expectations of a record gold-medal harvest. In March, the deputy head of the Sports Ministry cautioned that China didn't expect to surpass the U.S. The modesty may have been tactical. For Athens, Chinese sports officials put their target at just 20 gold medals. In fact, China won 32. Nearly 60% of China's total medal count came from young Olympians, many of whom will be in their prime in Beijing.
The brightest of these stars is Liu Xiang, a 110-m hurdler whose world-record-breaking sprints disprove the notion that Chinese bodies are somehow inferior to foreign ones in high-piston sporting events. (After winning a gold in Athens, Liu said his "victory has proved that athletes with yellow skin can run as fast as those with black and white skin.") When I met Liu shortly before Athens, I was struck by his individualism; unlike many Chinese Olympians who didn't choose their sporting careers, Liu actually liked hurdling. Although he did mumble some variation of the patriotic theme, it was clear he was also chasing after his own glory. "Because of the sports system, Chinese athletes are tied to the state," he told me. "But I think it's better to be like the West, where athletes are liberated." Back then, Liu had experienced a few elements of freedom: he had no curfew and enjoyed unlimited access to the Internet.
Since Athens, Liu has been marketed as a national hero, but sports officials have taken a chunk of his advertising revenues as payback for developing his career. Although the Shanghai native's famous grin beams from thousands of billboards across China, he appears less cheery these days. He has been publicly chastised by sports officials for allowing "social activities" a catchall for anything from commercial shoots to the occasional night of karaoke to get in the way of his training. The pressure to win is almost unimaginable: a recent Internet survey found that the Chinese public's No. 1 Olympics wish was for Liu, 24, to strike gold. Four years ago, Liu surprised me with his rebel streak. "The thing about rules is that they are made by people," he said, "and they can be broken by people too." But with so much riding on the Olympics, China's government will do all it can to ensure that it is records, not rules, that will be broken in Beijing.