Gold Mine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am

China is on course to usurp the US at the top of the medals table. If it does, the sporting machine that produces all these medallists will come under unprecedented scrutiny. The vast pyramid has drawn criticism for uncompromising training practices and a lack of support for athletes who fall by the wayside. But investment in technology and the adoption of advanced coaching ideas has brought the elite end to a new level

Early years:

The starting point in China's sports system is the 24,000-plus 'primary schools with sports heritage'. The six million children in these schools - selected for outstanding physical attributes or co-ordination - train once or twice a week, occasionally under the watchful eye of sports school scouts. In special cases like diving, gymnastics and swimming, the process starts earlier - sports schools enrol youngsters from kindergartens or recruiting camps for toddlers

The number of children in sports-focused primary schools is: 6,000,000

Sports schools:

At age 12 for the bulk of sports, the most talented 6-8 per cent of children make the jump from primary schools into 'spare-time sports schools'. They train in the morning and evening with lessons squeezed in between. These schools are free as they are covered under the nine years of compulsory education. Students stay on campus but can return home at weekends. Graduation day comes aged 15 or 16 - at this juncture about half return to regular education, while half progress to provincial or city sports schools. Here, students are required to live on campus and travel around the country for competitions, which take priority over academic lessons. There are more than 2,600 sports schools, and a survey last year showed funding for each averaged 4.9 million yuan (HK$5.6 million) - principals must develop alternative revenue sources, such as swimming lessons for the public, to cover the shortfall

The number of children who make the grade and enter 'spare-time' sports schools is: 360,000

Turning pro:

Following sports school, 20 to 30 per cent of students turn professional after being scouted by provincial or city teams. Those who don't make the cut must find work or continue their studies - they receive no financial support. For those who carry on the monthly wage for rookies in Shanghai, for example, is 600 yuan per month with a 45-yuan daily stipend. These athletes compete in nationwide competitions - including the blue-riband four-yearly National Games - and try to catch the eye of national team scouts. For sports like soccer and basketball, players join professional clubs outside the state-funded system. These athletes are expected to pay their own way up the ladder, but payback comes later when they owe little, if any, of their earnings to the government

Around 20-30 per cent of provincial sports school students get a chance to join the professional ranks, numbering: 36,000

National teams:

Selection to national teams means increased salary and stipend, improved training facilities and the potential to earn prize money at international tournaments. China has 23,000 athletes at national level. National teams also recruit from universities and professional clubs. Certain sports are particularly strong in universities, most notably taekwondo. Double Olympic champion Chen Zhong is from Beijing Sports University, which is known for an outstanding taekwondo coaching staff. These athletes will also compete for provincial teams who fight over the talent, as results in national competitions decide promotion of officials and distribution of funds

Many of the professional athletes are attached to national teams and compete to represent China internationally. This group numbers: 23,000

Becoming an Olympian:

China's Olympic selection process is the opposite of the US 'one-shot' approach. Olympians are chosen based on consistency: performance is assessed at international and domestic competition over three years, with the final 12 months given extra weight. According to Wu Shouzhang, the former deputy chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee, the country has no desire to see its carefully cultivated medal hopes miss out through a single mistake or minor fitness problem

Only the cream of the crop will be allowed to represent China at an Olympics. The 2008 delegation numbers: 639