Silence is golden as media blackout begins

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am

The fortified compound sits close to the grand Temple of Heaven to the south of the Forbidden City, a military barracks complete with heavily barricaded gates, oozing secrets and security under the several pairs of watchful, suspicious eyes of uniformed guards. Taking in the view, the grim, harsh Beijing winter becomes more so such is the brooding presence of the complex.

But the information board hung on the outside of the west wall provides a clue as to the real identity of this giant enclosure in the heart of the capital: A colour medal table from each Olympic Games since the ancient Greek event was reinstated in 1896.

Welcome to the National Sports Training Centre (NSTC), home to generations of Chinese sports achievers - a place synonymous with glory. But with the Beijing Games less than eight months away, it has seemingly fallen into the hands of a junta.

Since New Year's Day, armed police have taken over the security detail of the 200,000 square-metre compound from civilian guards at the invitation of the sports ministry, the State Sports General Administration.

The paramilitary force has set up seven rotating sentries from a 35-strong, crack mini-regiment. They in turn are supported by the Beijing municipal police who carry out 24-hour patrols inside the compound and will do so up until the end of August.

The extreme security measures, argue mainland sports officials, are to ensure a distraction-free environment for the country's Olympic hopefuls in the lead-up to probably the biggest event of their careers. Most of the national sports teams will move into this compound over the next few months, a complex which now serves as the main base for Chinese athletes before the Olympic village opens in late July. It is estimated that around 800 elite Chinese athletes would hone their skills and patriotism in the compound during the pre-Games period.

Currently, eight national teams, including the all-mighty gymnastics and weightlifting squads, are carrying out their winter training in the compound.

The NSTC, a department-level apparatus, does not, according to Chinese government rules, warrant armed state protection. Usually, only ministry level government and party offices are guarded by the prestigious security service.

But the authorities apparently have good reason to make it an exception.

'We must take precautions against any untoward situation,' said Sun Weimin, the deputy director of the NSTC. 'Armed police, with their expertise, will better ensure the order and safety of the athletes during their training.'

Sun didn't elaborate on what kind of threat or intruders they aim to keep out. But one obvious category of unwelcome guests is the media. Most Chinese sports officials believe media exposure would affect the athletes' mental health.

'Our studies have shown that excessive exposure to the media can disrupt Olympic preparation,' said Feng Shuyong, deputy director of the government-run track and field sports administrative centre. The sports ministry introduced a public relations education programme to most national teams last October, teaching athletes how to deal with nosey reporters. But the administration was not pleased with the results of the crash courses and instead has now decided to muzzle the athletes completely to avoid any 'bad publicity.' National teams at training camps in other parts of the country have also pulled up the drawbridge and issued their own version of the new gagging law.

In Zhangzhou, Fujian, the Chinese women's volleyball team declared they would give journalists only 20 minutes on each of the opening three days of their two-month winter training camp before becoming hermits.

In Tianjin, taekwondo team officials sent text messages to journalists dissuading them from travelling to the city in search of stories. 'Athletes and coaches will not accept any interview requests until after the end of February,' said a spokeswoman.

And outspoken, quotable sports personalities have buttoned their lips, too. Li Yongbo, the head coach of the national badminton team and a well-known press darling, warned journalists of an unprecedented media blackout.

'We will enter a period of silence,' Li said at a press conference before he led the shuttlers to Hainan for a 40-day camp. 'I'm really sorry for the new practice but my athletes won't accept any interviews, even by phone.'

Observers believe the measures are also to guard against sports espionage, especially with an unprecedented Olympics medal haul high on the authorities' agenda.

'In previous Olympics, we did find sports spies posing as journalists to collect video information of athletes' training,' said a former government sports official, who requested anonymity.

'Now that the tactical and technical preparation for the Beijing Games has entered the most crucial phase, the last thing we want is a leak of our game planning.'

But will the restrictions strike a chord with the athletes? The answer is seemingly a resounding 'yes' from the sports stars.

'We do need a quiet environment ahead of the Olympics,' swimmer Wu Peng, the silver medallist in the men's 200 metre butterfly at the 2007 World Championships, told The Mirror newspaper. 'I think the enhanced security will work to our benefit.'

One very pleased supporter of the new security is champion Liu Xiang. The superstar hurdler, who once used decoy cars to lose stalking journalists, didn't conceal his excitement about the media blackout.

'It seems inevitable that I will see you guys less and less in the coming months,' he beamed to the batch of reporters who accessed his training session last weekend.

Goodness knows what the mainland sports media will feed on now to fill in. Speculation, of course, is a cornerstone to any reporter's diet in lean periods.

Fortress of solitude

This many Chinese athletes could be holed up in the National Sports Training Centre to prepare for the Beijing Olympics: 800