'In your home you must show your best'

From the outside, Beijing’s Shishahai sports school is unremarkable. It would be easy to walk past it, a functional-looking building a couple of kilometres north of Tiananmen square, without even noticing. Inside the main entrance, in the gloomy hall, the first thing you see is the noticeboard, on to which the pictures of five athletes have been pinned.
The five, former pupils of the school, were all at the Olympic games in Athens this summer. One of them, Zhang Nan, came back with a bronze medal. The others—Luo Wei, Zhang Yining, Feng Kun and Teng Haibin—won gold. One school, three individual and two team gold medals. As far as Olympic sport is concerned, that makes the Shishahai Sports School more successful than Canada.

In the school’s huge gymnastics hall, dozens of tiny children wearing leotards or just their underwear are balancing on beams, cartwheeling across the floor, hanging from rings and swinging from asymmetric bars. Officially, the youngest are five, but some look younger. If they fall off something, they are picked up by one of the many coaches and put back on. Everything is done again, and again, and again—until it is done right. They look neither happy nor unhappy. All are perfectly behaved, and it is eerily quiet. It’s an extraordinary place, this gymnasium, an enormous room full of tiny, muscular little children, quietly and obediently being turned into gymnasts.

Three Chinese gymnasts won medals in Athens, not an especially proud tally for the country. But two of the three—Teng Haibin, who got gold in the men’s pommel horse, and Zhang Nan, who was women’s individual all-round bronze medal winner—started off in this room.

Along a corridor, out through the yard, and into another nondescript building is the table-tennis hall, where dozens more children, older this time (the youngest is eight), hit balls to each other on rows and rows of tables. It’s not quiet in here. In fact the noise is almost deafening—a ping-pong percussion symphony played on rubber bat and plastic ball, the harsher knock of ball on table, the squeak of trainer sole on wooden floor, with a melody of yelling kids on top. Given the echoing acoustics of the place, it sounds a bit like hell in here.

China has always led the world in table tennis and won six medals in Athens. Zhang Yining, who won gold in the women’s singles and doubles, first put bat to ball in this room.

There are similar scenes all round the school. Huge rooms, each with a giant Chinese flag hanging across one end, filled with obedient kids learning to be champions of the future—in volleyball, weightlifting, boxing, badminton and martial arts. It’s a tough regime for the school’s 550 pupils, aged between five and 16, and all of whom are boarders. They get up at seven in the morning and exercise for half an hour before breakfast. Then they do school work. After lunch, it’s physical training from two to five. Then they shower, eat and do their homework before going to bed. They can go home on Saturdays for one night with their families, and the very youngest are allowed midweek visits by their parents, too.

The school’s director, Liu Hong Bin, can watch over his empire from his office. There are CCTV cameras all round the school, and opposite his desk a screen, divided into nine, shows him what’s going on in every room. I ask him if he thinks the children we are looking at on the screen are happy. Of course, he says. Athletes can’t be athletes if they don’t enjoy it. He tells me there are only two worthwhile professions: athlete and soldier. Was he an athlete? No, a soldier. But it is only athletes who are rewarded with a national flag-raising ceremony. No scientist gets that. So it is only the sports star who can get a real feeling of power and achievement. He lights a cigarette.

The Shishahai sports school is just one small cog in China’s Olympic machine. There are around 3 000 sports schools in the country, of which 100 or so, the most prestigious and successful, are boarding schools. The system is based largely on that of the former Soviet Union. Scouts scour normal schools, looking for children who have the potential to become athletes. They are tested to see if their bodies are likely to develop appropriately for a certain sport, then their parents are encouraged to send their children to a government-funded sports school. Successful pupils will progress to provincial teams.

The real success stories may end up at the National Training Centre of the State Sports General Administration, across town near the Temple of Heaven. This huge complex of buildings is home to several of China’s national teams—diving, swimming, badminton, volley ball, table tennis, weightlifting, track and field. Here, athletes train all year round. They live nearby, sharing apartments with their team mates. The centre has one objective: to produce Olympic champions. When I visit, a lot of them are away at the National Games in Chengdu, so it feels like a university campus during the holidays. But the badminton team is here. It’s like the table-tennis hall at Shishahai, with bigger people and a softer noise. When a shuttlecocks falls on the floor, it’s not picked up; instead another is picked out of one of the huge bins. So the whole floor is covered in thousands of shuttlecock and it looks like a turkey plucking factory in December.

Maqi Wang, the centre’s manager, gives me the tour of what I’m allowed to see. He proudly shows off the new Italian computer-controlled treadmills, the filter system in the gymnasium that removes the magnesium powder from the air, and the vents in the diving pool that create a cushion of bubbles on the surface to soften the blow for the divers as they hit the water again and again and again.

It is certainly impressive, but there’s more to China’s Olympic success than some fancy equipment. It is a highly organised system—organised centrally by the China Sports Bureau rather than being left in the hands of different sports’ individual organisations, as it is in most western countries. It’s a pyramid, with a massive base—the 300 000 children in the country’s sports school.

They’re certainly doing something right. In Seoul in 1988, China won five gold medals, the same as Britain. In Athens this year they won 32, just three fewer than the US. You don’t have to be a mathematician to spot a trend in the country’s medal-table position. Fourth in Atlanta eight years ago, third in Sydney, second in Athens. That only leaves one place to go in the games in four years’ time, which will be on their own soil of course.

Simon Clegg, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, is sure they will top the table at home. “I have no doubt they will dominate in 2008,” he says. Clegg, who visited China earlier this year, puts the dramatic improvement down to several factors—the sheer volume of people being trained, the quality of those people, and the fact that the regime really wants it to happen. “There is a very high government priority on this, so they are putting in the mechanisms and the support structures because they deem it important on the world’s greatest sporting stage to show they can be the best in the world.”

Ren Hai, head of the Olympic Research Centre at Beijing University, confirms the importance of the games to the regime. “The government puts a lot of stress on athletic achievement. And this will be the first games to be held in China. So according to Chinese tradition, in your home you must show your best.” Ren Hai thinks the sports school system has been instrumental in China’s meteoric rise. But he also cites advances in training theory and the fact that a lot of money is being injected into Olympic sport—increasingly from the private sector as well as from the government. It’s difficult to get very reliable figures but earlier this year Li Dunhou, director of the Auditing Centre of General Administration of Sport, said the Bureau’s budget had risen by 15% to around £150-million.

China’s drive for Olympic success is symptomatic of the bigger picture. Robin Jones, lecturer in sports studies at Loughborough University and Britain’s leading expert on Chinese sport, sees it that way. “I think you have to see it alongside all the other things China is doing—entry into the world trade organisation, convertible currency, a new stock market, reform of state industries, the whole package. Government reform has really been about joining the rest of the world. And sport isn’t out on a limb in that respect, it’s part of the whole story. And the whole story is that China sees itself, maybe for the first time in its history, becoming top dog.”

As with everything else in China today, Olympic sport is full of paradoxes. So you have central government organisation and funding alongside sponsorship of individual teams by sportswear giants. And athletes competing for the glory of the country and of the party, but also for cash incentives (£13 500 for Olympic gold) and lucrative endorsement deals.

It’s not just the regime that has gone mad for the Olympics. A Gallup poll found that 94,9% of the population supported Beijing’s bid. I can’t find a single person who was not excited about hosting the games, about success at Athens and about certain greater success in Beijing in 2008. In Tiananmen square, by the Olympic countdown clock, which reads 1 387 days, 7 hours, 37 minutes and 44 seconds when I arrive, Chen Bao Pin, a student, tells me that it will be a great opportunity for the world to see the new China. And Huo from Inner Mongolia says it won’t just benefit Beijing but the whole of China. Who will come out on top of the medals tables? They both laugh. China of course.

There have been two accusations thrown at China over its recent sporting success. The first, and far more serious, is that they’re a nation of drug cheats. And certainly, this has been true in the past. It is now known that after the unification of Germany, a number of sports doctors and trainers from the old GDR went to work in China. During the 90s, scandal followed scandal, most infamously when the swimming team was caught on the way to the world championships with a suitcase full of banned substances. Ren Hai admits that it probably hasn’t been totally solved. “Sporting achievement has such high ecomomic benefit, it’s very hard to eliminate the problem. Some players will continue to try.”

But David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping agency, has said he is convinced the government has done everything in its power to stop it. And Clegg agrees: “I’m as confident as I can be that any suggesting of regime approach to doping is completely unfounded.” Of the 150 urine tests carried out on Chinese athletes in Athens, none was positive.

The other criticism aimed at the Chinese Olympic programme is that it’s about targeting all the so-called soft medals—in shooting, diving, and table tennis. But that too may be changing. When Liu Xiang, whose name means “flying in the wind”, threw himself across the line in the 110m hurdles final in Athens not only did he win gold and equal Colin Jackson’s 12-year-old record in the process, but he also became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic medal on the track. There was nothing soft about this one.

Now Xiang is the biggest sports star in China. He’s their Beckham and his face seems to stare out from every other billboard in the country. I meet him at his Shanghai training centre. This is certainly not a hi-tech place; there are those wooden ladders on the walls you used to see in school gyms, and the mats on the floor are ragged and frayed.

But it’s not just about facilities, says Xiang. It’s about an understanding of the event, it’s about having the opportunity to compete with foreign athletes, which they never used to, and it’s about having good coaching methods and a good understanding with the coach. He spends so much time with his coach he sometimes calls him dad by mistake, he says. Sun Haiping, his coach, is here now, puffing away at a cigarette.

Xiang is a product of the sports school system. He tells me about being admitted to the Junior Sports School of Putuo district, to train as a high jumper. He almost dropped out when tests showed he probably wouldn’t gain the necessary height, and his parents were keen for him to follow an academic career. But then Sun Haiping spotted him, and saw a potential hurdling talent.

It was a dream to win gold, Xiang says. He feels he was making a great contribution, and it finallly shows that Asians can compete against Europeans, Africans and Americans.

It’s the Americans the Chinese really want to beat. During the television coverage last summer, they only really bothered with two medal tables, theirs and America’s. What made Xiang’s victory extra sweet was that the athlete he beat into second place, Terrence Trammell, is from the US. And that may well have been a little taster for the future. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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