No holds barred as Chinese athletes tell of tyranny years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 December, 1995, 12:00am

THE cliche that 'sport and politics don't mix' has always sounded more like wishful bleating than a statement of fact.

Almost every international sports event has political connotations. As governments who invest in sporting success know only too well - sport and jingoism together can paper over the failings in other areas of society.

Sometimes, too, the political wind blows the other way and sport can be a vehicle for grassroots protest - most famously with Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics.

This week politics cropped up on PRIME Sports in the most unlikely fashion.

A programme called 'Sports Stars of China' would not normally attract my attention, the title smacking as it does of state propaganda. However, switching on to it accidentally, revealed two of China's elite male gymnasts talking with amazing frankness about the way the system treats them like fodder for the greater good.

The two, sitting in a changing room, pulled no punches.

They started by complaining about how the system takes over lives from a ridiculously early age if any signs of ability are shown and proceeds to drill them towards perfection on mat, horse, rings and beam.

Although both teens admitted there were beneficial aspects to a disciplinarian regime in athletic training they both bemoaned the 'lack of education' provided by the state during these formative years. And they rued missing the 'normal life' of a child.

They even went so far as to say, without equivocation, that once a gymnast is spent at the grand old age of 16 they are left on the scrap heap, less well educated than their contemporaries and less well prepared for fending in the real world.

The only exceptions, they said, were the lucky few superstars who delivered gold medal glory.

Tabloid television gratuitously bandies the phrase 'searing indictment' about but that was just what this was - more so for coming from such an unlikely source in the middle of the day on a sports channel.

One was left thinking that either the new openness in China is more expansive than we dared hope or that the two speakers felt sufficiently well-regarded for their own gymnastic triumphs to be able to speak their minds.

IN the preceding two weeks, PRIME heavily advertised the launch of two new weekly soccer magazine shows - 'Spanish Soccer' and 'German Soccer'. Both were set to debut last Friday night. Viewers staying in or setting their videos would, however, have been disappointed.

Live coverage of the World Grand Prix Badminton event in Singapore overran to accommodate a doubles match. That was fair enough. After all, the running time of live events can't be pre-determined.

But the end of the match was followed by almost 20 minutes of Brian Langley talking through match-ups for the following day with no action on screen save for the riveting image of the empty Singapore arena.

By the end of that, though, instead of going belatedly to the Spanish and German soccer PRIME jumped ahead to the Gadgil Western Masters golf from India which wasn't due to begin for another half hour! And there was no explanatory message to tell viewers the new times for the two soccer shows.

From being over the moon at the prospect of seeing Real Madrid, Bayern Munich etc, PRIME's capricious scheduling left me sick as a parrot.