Yao Ming must be thinking his broken left toe isn't entirely a bad thing. The injury got the multi-million dollar NBA star off a week of pain, hardship, humiliation, sleep deprivation and mind-numbing ideology sessions. His national teammates were not so fortunate. When the men's basketball team gathered last week in Beijing to start a two-month training camp in preparation for the World Championships in Japan in August, the first thing basketball officials decided to do was to take the elite athletes down a peg or two. Intent on breaking the men down before they build them back up again, they were sent off for a dose of military life at an army training camp on the outskirts of Beijing. Special fatigues were made up for the gangly men, most of whom stand well over two metres, but even the extra-long trouser legs still flapped half-mast in the wind. The 2.13m Tang Zhengdong, just back from trials with the LA Lakers, was one of the many who struggled to squeeze the peaked cap over his skull. 'Well, it's not because your brain is too big,' one of his teammates taunted. But while the caps were problematic, the boots were total non-starters. Army regulation footwear doesn't come in the size 17s and 18s the players needed, and officials feared if they got extra-large heavy duty boots made up the players would barely be able to lift their feet off the ground. And thoroughbreds are easily injured, they figured, so a compromise was struck and they allowed the new recruits to don the Nike and Adidas trainers they sport on the courts. Finally kitted out, the motley crew was then frog-marched out into a courtyard at dawn, harangued by an angry drill sergeant. 'Atten-Shun!' he bellowed. 'Salute', 'turn to the right', 'turn to the left', 'at ease' - and so it goes. On and on and on. At the start the hapless men, most of whom wobbled like baby giraffes and seemed to have a worrying habit of turning left when they were told to turn right, saw the humour in their ungainly manoeuvres - this was anything but a well-oiled fighting machine. And the fact the national media was watching didn't help. But the grins and giggles soon evaporated in the heat of the day. Each time a player screwed up - and they did often - they had to roar out 'report', to admit their mea culpa. At the end of the arduous session they had to hold a rigid sentry pose under the hot sun for 30 minutes. When the supervisor finally roared 'fall out', the professional athletes looked like decrepit old men, moaning and groaning and wondering where they could find a good masseuse. 'Most of us have back pain. It is really painful, it's much harder than normal physical training for people who are tall,' groaned Yi Jianlian, the prodigious talent who led Guangdong to the domestic championship this year. Then it's time to run, and climb over obstacles and swing on ropes - by noon the camouflage clothing is drenched in sweat. Conditioning the body is one thing, conditioning the mind another. The first afternoon's 'mental education session' was entitled, 'United together and fight bravely - the key to victory'. Players chant the slogans of Mao and Marx, draw lessons from Sun Tzu's treatise the Art of War, and listen to principles of military theory. 'The players are the soldiers of the country during times of peace. Their physical attributes are our country's weapons,' the lecturer rasped, as the young men furtively scribbled notes. At the end of a very long day the players curl up in their dormitory bunk beds, unable to stretch out. It might be uncomfortable but they are told that doesn't matter - they won't be in the beds for long. At 3am they'll be hauled up and sent marching to Tiananmen Square, where they will watch the flag-raising ceremony at daybreak. The military camps have been a key part of most of the national teams' training for decades. Diving queen Guo Jingjing might be the nation's sporting pinup, with her glamorous looks and Olympic medals, but she too had to go for a stint in boot camp last October. There is even quiet competition between the sports officials over which team can endure the most army hardship. Table tennis chiefs believe they take that title, which they say has paved the way for them to dominate the sport at an Olympic level for decades. At the start of each season they scratch their heads to come up with more arduous programmes to toughen up their recruits and instil unwaveringly obedient attitudes. Any player who steps out of line during the season is sent back to camp for a double dose. Back in the basketball camp the instructor doesn't like what he's hearing. It's the national anthem but the recruits are not singing with the passion and zeal he would like. So they sing it again. And again. And they keep roaring it out with hoarse voices until he's satisfied. One voice could be heard above all the others. Singing like his life depended on it was Wang Zhizhi - the first Chinese player to make the NBA, a national hero who fell into disgrace after he refused to return home for a similar camp four years ago. Since then he's been putting his feet up in his Californian mansion and living off the last US$6 million contract he picked up with the Los Angeles Clippers before being dropped. Now, with the Olympics looming large, he's back in the family fold and has made all the necessary public and private self-criticisms to enable officials to bring him back into the squad. No one says it, but everyone knows this week of hardship is largely about him. It's about Wang Zhizhi and his ilk - athletes who are believed to have put their personal desires in front of the needs of the nation. And it's about athletes who might consider doing so in the future, after their confidence is fuelled by sporting and financial success. That's not tolerated. And through the brainwashing, the bullying and the badgering, athletes leave the camp with a uniform idea of who and what they are: ambassadors of China, striving to serve the nation. Weapons in peace time to be used as the party sees fit. Fall out!