Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chinese Olympic Fools Gold

As this post is being written, the Chinese divers have won all seven of the gold medals at stake in Olympic diving. They have also won all but one of the gold medals available for men's gymnastics. None of this is by accident because China has turned itself into a nation where over one billion people are part of an huge athletic factory. It is certain that the Chinese will win the most gold medals at this Olympics, although the United States may end up with the most medals. Of what importance is this? To the Chinese government it is of great importance. So important that they use 13 and 14 year old girls for their gymnastic team and supply documents indicating the girls are the required 16 years of age.

The extent of the intensity of the Chinese government's athletic training program is described in an article in Time. "Across the nation, nearly 400,000 young hopefuls in 3,000 sports schools toil to bring glory to their motherland. Most are plucked from elementary school and sent to train at these state-run sports academies before the age of nine regardless of their interest in athletics." Children much younger than the age of nine are taken from their homes with the permission of the parents who are given inducements by the central government. These children remain the "property" of the state and are discouraged from coming home by their own parents who have adopted the national motto, "Failure is not an option."

The extent of the fanaticism of this training is illustrated in another excerpt from the article in Time.

"One by one, the little girls walk to the wooden blocks and extend their legs into the splits, one callused foot balancing on each block, their straining bodies hovering just above the ground. Coach Yang Yaojun, his sweatpants hiked high over his belly, ambles over to the girls, smiles and hands the nearest one a stopwatch. The girls, who are six and seven years old, do not smile back. Teetering on the blocks, they wait as Yang straddles each leg in turn, resting his 70-kg frame on their outstretched limbs. No matter how tough the girls are, no matter how much resolve they have mustered, the tears come within seconds. They do not cry out, though. They just well up soundlessly and stare at the seconds ticking down on the stopwatch. After half a minute, Yang stands up and lifts the girls off the blocks. They stagger with the first step, their oversized thigh muscles visibly twitching. By the second or third step, the tremors and the tears are gone."
One shudders to think about what we will see 4, 8, or 12 years from now. An army of Chinese athletes indifferent to pain and willing to do anything to their country requires may eventually sweep all the medals in all the sports in the Olympics. It is impossible to calculate the course to the people of that country to achieve this rather dubious goal.


Kim said...


The Chinese are indeed over the top in the extent they push their Olympians, definitely extreme. But I wouldn't say this kind of thing is unusual in general.

In my own psych practice, I've also encountered quite a few young athletes, in some cases "prospective Olympians" who've been pushed to madness in the USA, as well. Many of them burnout and wind up as substance abusers because parents, schools, coaches, yes even the USOC puts far too much strain on their shoulders. So this isn't just a Chinese thing, we definitely have it here in the States as well.

Kiss of X said...

^ Except the athletes in the States are protected by rights, are who they say they are, and are free to walk away at any time; whereas Chinese athletes never miss what they never know.

Oh, and the US government doesn't retroactively alter media to protect its lies about athletes' eligibility.

Ok, I do respect your concerns about pressure though.

Dana said...

My thinking is much the same as Kim's, but comes only from personal experience. In order to be the "best," you have to be willing to make complete and total sacrifice ... or just be one of the very few with so much natural ability that you only have to sacrifice 99%. I'd say the big difference is that China pays for the training. Here in the U.S., many amateur athletes who are promising Olympians never have the chance to see what they can do because the costs are so prohibitive.

I'm not missing the point of your post (the physical and emotional impact on young children), but I believe that as long as there are records to break, and no limits on training, this practice will continue.

Neil Benson said...


What's the best? What's the cost of being the best? Kim makes an excellent point about what happens in America. A mother just exposed massive use of steroids in the local Texas school systems among the football players. The football coach ridiculed her, but the school board in the state legislature paid attention. Bobby bonds wanted to be the best. It's likely he's going to spend more than a few years in a federal penitentiary. It's good to keep things in perspective

Ashamed said...

Shawn Johnson was trained by a Chinese coach using Chinese (Soviet) methods.

Nastia Liukin was also trained under the same rigorous system by her Russian parents.

Neil Benson said...

Point an extent. Shawn and Nastia both wanted to be the best and they got the best coaching. "They wanted" are the operative words. Its their own drives for perfection not the governments.