887 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am

How did it come to pass? When China emerged from the mad Mao era a few decades ago they were sporting lightweights, but today they are a powerhouse that produces battalions of Olympic medal winners. In Athens they were second only to the United States in terms of gold medals collected, and some predict they will take the number one slot by the time the games come to Beijing.

It's a curious phenomenon in a country without a strong sporting culture. They have developed a knack of producing champions in sports that they have absolutely no tradition in. You sit on a beach in Brazil and watch how the kids control a football and you can see how that nation churns out World Cup-winning teams.

You see a Kenyan villager running 10km to school at dizzy altitudes and you can envisage that child becoming an impressive long-distance runner.

But in China, at the grassroots level, there is no strong amateur sporting culture, and it seems most kids would rather spend their spare time playing video games or shopping than shooting hoops or plunging in a pool. Yet an ever-increasing number of their athletes are finding ways to the podium. So what is China's secret recipe?

Ask coaches, athletes and sports officials around the country and they invariably give most of the credit to the same thing: the national system, the machine that spits out world champions despite the nation's weak sporting roots.

The athletes have benefited from the position that modern China finds itself in: a one-party centrally controlled state that is fuelled by a vibrant market economy. The Communist Party craves sporting glory. As the nation's political and economic might grows, sporting success is seen as an essential component in building the confidence and stature of an emerging nation.

The political leaders want to produce Olympic champions so they throw millions of dollars at the system to produce them. With no opposition parties or changes of government to have to deal with, the funding goes unchallenged and is secure.

At the local level there are 30,000 specialist primary schools scattered across the country that have an emphasis on cultivating sporting talent, schools that suck up all the young kids in their region who have shown signs of athletic ability.

The best prospects are plucked out of these local centres and brought to the provincial level. There they live in dormitories with teammates and spend six or seven days a week fine-tuning their skills under the watchful eye of an army of coaches and officials. They don't have to worry about anything but improving their performance. The government manages their lives, pays all their living expenses and gives them a small salary. Several hundred of the top performers are then brought from the provinces to the capital and put into the national teams.

It's something of a numbers game, and for the vast majority the investment in time and effort will not reap big rewards. While hundreds of thousands of athletes are put through the system, only a few dozen will make the grade.

The focus is on the medal-heavy sports, the approach is a long-term one, and the emphasis is on identifying the best talents for the national teams at as early an age as possible.

Coaches for sports new to China have to poach their prospects. Aerial skier Han Xiaopeng is a case in point, the 23-year-old who last week won China's first gold in a snow sport at the Turin Games. When Han was first brought on to the ski team as a young child he had not only never skied before, he had never even seen snow. Officials spotted him as a fearless 12-year-old member of an acrobatic team in his native Jiangsu and thought his skills could possibly be adapted for their purposes. They brought him up to Shenyang in the frigid northeast and put a pair of skis on him.

For more than 11 years he trained in the system up there, during which time he was only allowed to return home to his parents once a year. By the time Turin came around an Olympic champion had been manufactured.

Similarly, Gao Feng, a judo champion, was a hardy 13-year-old member of a running team when an official asked her if she would make a switch to a martial art that she had never even seen before. Again, a decade of drilling in the sports system produced a world-beater.

For the system to work it needs money, and the massive economic growth in recent years has helped ensure the coffers are always full, funded by both the government and private companies keen to hook into the movement.

And as any manufacturer will tell you, money can go a long way here. While the US and China both invest similar amounts in their Olympic teams - about US$100 million - wage bills and other costs in China are a fraction of what they are in America, ensuring the mainland gets a whole lot more bang for its buck.

However, just as with other countries, it is very difficult to gauge how many of the medal-winning performances over the years have been enhanced by doping.

Certainly in the 1990s there were strong indications that a systematic drug programme was in place for some sports, with over 40 key Chinese athletes failing tests in the space of a few years. But, the country has made efforts to restore its image since then.

Still, the problem has clearly not fully gone away, as evidenced by last October's National Games where 27 drug cheats were identified.

Doping is of course a worldwide problem and athletes from every nation have the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. And it is reassuring to see widespread tests being carried out these days, both by the Chinese and the international bodies.




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