The high price of gold for China

Olympics 2012: China's training system for elite athletes owes much to the old Soviet method, and has enjoyed similar success. Some, even inside China, are asking if the cost in lost childhood is worth it.

Children as young as 6 are selected for the Chen Jinglun sport school in Hangzhou, where the Olympics sensation Ye Shiwen trained. 
Carlos Barria / Reuters
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BEIJING //When there was speculation that the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen's world record and two gold medals in London might have had some pharmaceutical assistance, the 16-year-old shot back that her success was down to "hard work and training".

There is no doubting the effort and sacrifices Ye made on her way to Olympic glory.

For much of her childhood, she saw her parents only once a week, having left primary school and joined one of China's elite sporting institutions to focus on the gold-medal ambitions realised in dominant style in both the 200-metre and 400-metre individual medley events.

China's state investment in training athletes has paid off handsomely during the past two Games: they secured 51 gold medals in Beijing in 2008, 15 more than any other country, and are vying with the United States for the top spot in London.

Yet there are indications China may have gone too far in search of success.

It was only after she secured gold last week in the women's synchronised three-metre springboard that the Chinese diver Wu Minxia was told her grandmother had died more than a year ago and that her mother had been battling breast cancer for the past eight years.

In unusually candid remarks, her father, Wu Jueming, said his daughter "doesn't call us often because she's busy with training.

"We've known for years that our daughter doesn't belong to us any more," he said.

The contrast with the Olympic hosts could hardly be more stark, with popular British athletes sometimes pictured in the national press with their parents and siblings, relaxing in the front room of the family home.

One Chinese competitor in London has even wondered if there might be more to life than pursuing Olympic gold. "Our way of thinking has many limits," said Lu Ying, 23, who secured silver in the women's 100m butterfly.

In China, she said, all she did was "study, study and train, train and then rest".

In Australia, where many Chinese swimmers have been sent for training, she found a different, perhaps more appealing, approach. "In Australia I've been invited to barbecues with my teammates - that would never happen in China."

The Chinese public have levelled criticism, with one user of the popular Weibo microblogs saying the Olympic strategy "makes people lose their humanity".

Another netizen was even more blunt: "Our national sports system is disgusting."

There have also been concerns raised by overseas experts, among them Sir Matthew Pinsent, the British four-times Olympic rowing gold medallist. When he visited a Chinese sporting academy, children told him their coaches were hitting them.

"It seems the Chinese see this as part and parcel of creating success," he said.

Consisting of about 3,000 elite academies where about 400,000 individuals train, the Chinese system has many parallels with the methods used by Eastern bloc countries during the Soviet era, according to Yan Qiang, former senior vice president of Titan Media, which publishes China's highest-circulation sports newspaper, Titan Sports.

"China's sports system has been influenced by the former Soviet Union system greatly. China has adjusted the system to its own advantage," said Mr Yan, now deputy editor of NetEase, which runs the Chinese news portal

In sports that are popular in China, among them gymnastics, table tennis and badminton, Mr Yan said the country had "a huge pool of talent" from which to select.

"We choose the most talented from a very young age, perhaps 6 or 8. They can be put into state-owned sports schools. They take this training as a job. This can be a great advantage against the athletes from other nations."

There have also been efforts to improve performance in sports in which, historically, China has been weaker. Since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, China has advanced Project 119, which focuses on events such as sailing, swimming and track and field disciplines which, in Sydney, yielded just one out of a possible 119 gold medals for China.

Training complexes have been set up inside China, including high-altitude swimming centres, and China has made use of facilities and coaches from overseas, because in these events the indigenous coaching base is less developed.

Despite the use of foreign coaches and training venues, the system as a whole, said Mr Yan, was very different from that in western nations. The government pays all the bills, so athletes "don't need to worry about other aspects of their life". They can dedicate themselves completely to winning.

There are long hours of training, carefully controlled diets and few distractions, with school work often taking a back seat for younger competitors. The uncompromising focus on success means only the most talented and dedicated make it through.

Parallels are even drawn with the military. Li Chengpeng, a well known Chinese former sports commentator turned social commentator, said competitors who were part of the national training system were described as "special troops in the sports circle".

In a country reluctant to forget its humiliations at the hands of foreign powers, sporting achievement is as much about restoring national pride as it is an individual endeavour.

"The gold medals in the Olympics, and great success, enhance the confidence of the nation," said Mr Yan.

The huge efforts appear to be paying off. When China appeared at the 1984 Los Angeles Games after an absence of more than three decades, it secured 15 golds. In Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, the gold haul reached 28 and 32 respectively, increasing further in Beijing.

Yet the financial cost is significant: the bill for training competitors has been put at more than US$750 million (Dh2.75 billion).

It would be "impossible" for China not to invest heavily in the Olympics, Mr Li said, but it was important not to go too far.

"We need to give it a second thought if the investment exceeds a rational level." The public has come to understand the price of Olympic success and now wonders "how much of our national assets we have to use to achieve these results.

"There might be more important things. Maybe more participation in sport would be more meaningful than the medals."