Project 119 addsup, or does it?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am


Remember Project 119, the magic number of achievable medal wins calculated by China's science-minded sports chiefs as they prepared for the country's moment in the Olympic sun in 2008? It was a scheme drawn up by the General Administration for Sports (GAS) and sought to widen Team China's medal-winning disciplines. It yielded notable breakthroughs in boxing, wrestling and other fringe sports in Beijing, and helped propel them to the top of the gold medal table and trump the US (51-36).

But the project was deemed largely a flop in athletics and in the pool, and the poor showing in these marquee events - those that truly put you in the pantheon of great sporting nations - was a humiliation for exposing the country's Achilles' heel. The odd three digits, 1-1-9, conjured up in some minds sinister Orwellian Room 101 overtones. Just what did Project 119 entail? How did it achieve its results, many sports critics asked. What dark methods were deployed in China's Room 119 - better calculated as its 3,000 secretive training camps - to turn its maths into medals?

Such is the secretive nature of the GAS, the answers to these burning questions remain mysteries. What is known is that after the project's failure to deliver the medal haul in the prized events, the omniscient sports chiefs were determined to amend the situation in London. And they are clearly succeeding in their quest. Hangzhou human jet-ski Ye Shiwen, the teenage swimming sensation who dived into the London Aquatics centre on Sunday and powered to a gold medal in sensational style, is a later model of the 119 blueprint.

The 16-year-old swimming prodigy has been finely tuned to leave her competitors in her wake, and with an extraordinary performance she smashed the world record by swimming the final freestyle 50 metres of the 400m individual medley in 28.93 seconds.

Her breathtaking swim stunned spectators and saw the international swimming fraternity drop its collective jaw with a loud thud. Not only was the youngster a whole five seconds quicker than her previous best, the split was also faster than that of 27-year-old American Ryan Lochte, who minutes earlier won gold in the men's 400m individual medley.

Ye's swim also raised eyebrows in millions of minds. Just how did she - and China - manage this otherwise improbable human feat and take the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius - Faster, Higher, Stronger - to dizzying new heights?

BBC presenter Claire Balding invited former British Olympian turned TV studio pundit Mark Foster to add oxygen to the growing air of disbelief. 'How many questions will there be, Mark, about somebody who can suddenly swim so much faster than she has ever swum before?' Balding asked.

What many thought she implied was Ye's amazing swim must be down to doping. Drug scandals have, like many sports in China, plagued swimming. In the 1990s, 40 swimmers were banned after positive tests. Just last month, another 16-year-old, 2009 world championship team member Li Zhesi tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, EPO, which boosts the body's oxygen supplies.

But China has gone to great lengths to stamp out doping, and desperately wants to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of seeing any of its stars test positive in London. Team China members are regularly tested and such is the fear of a banned substance such as clenbuterol accidentally entering an athlete's bloodstream, a ban on eating meat sourced from the country's notoriously suspect food suppliers was enforced.

But Foster and other pundits have played down any suggestion of cheating. 'Bearing in mind she is 16 years of age, and when you are young you do some big best times... it can be done,' he replied.

The doubt raised over Ye divided opinion and saw viewers take to Twitter to either praise Balding for daring to suggest some kind of skulduggery, while others attacked her for throwing sour grapes at the Chinese team and ruining Ye's remarkable moment. Some even called for her sacking. The BBC stepped into defend their veteran presenter, saying it was Balding's role to ask the experts how Ye managed to achieve the remarkable.

If we can rule out cheating, what method is it that produces such brilliant athletes? What is China getting clearly right and others wrong? The harsh, boot-camp medal factories are places to look for answers. Critics say this Soviet-style way of training talent - long abandoned by most countries - is a system that denies many athletes a childhood and deprives them of their parents for long periods.

At the grass roots, there is the early identification system, where teachers are trained to look out for physical attributes rather than sporting talent in their kindergarten pupils. Local sporting chiefs then check out the vital statistics of the subject, including their genealogy. If the children tick the boxes, years of gruelling training and achievable sporting glory await.

Asked if she resented being seen as a mass-produced podium-topping robot, Ye replied: 'Of course not. We have very good training, very scientific-based training, that's why we all have progressed.'

Not all Chinese swimmers are sticking to the GAS message, however. Lu Ying, in a rare display of criticism from one of the country's athletes, spoke out about the harsh training schemes after winning a silver medal in the women's 100m butterfly. Lu has trained in Australia and liked what she found there. Athletes in other countries were not afraid to have fun as well as train, said the 23-year-old.

'In China we're used to study, study and train, train and then rest. I think our way of thinking has many limits. In Australia, I've been invited to barbecues with my teammates - that would never happen in China.'

The jury, as well as some Chinese athletes, is clearly still out on the way China produces its medal greats. But as we continue to look for the legacies of four years ago, we must thank Project 119 for moulding medal machines like Ye.