Behind China's gold rush Chinese stars start young A Beijing sports school grooms future Olympians - but at what cost?

Posted: August 23, 2008

BEIJING — The little-boy gymnasts, training in their uniform Skivvies, shinnied up a rope in the basement of the Beijing Shichahai Sports School and jumped about 30 feet into a pile of foam rocks. It looked like fun.

"Not for fun, for body training," a school employee said.

Adolescent volleyball players with almost freakishly long legs, badminton players, boxers, and expert little-girl gymnasts, no more than 6 years old, bounced about. A large Chinese flag hung from a wall in each of the eight sports halls.

How exactly did China dominate the Olympic gold-medal count, radically changing the international sports hierarchy? Here was a window.

A shining light among the 221 state-run sports schools in China, the Beijing Shichahai Sports School has 600 children, from kindergarten age to 18. School leaders say their goal is to "harness" athletic talent for China.

"Our school does its best to train them to be professional, to join in the Olympics," said Shi Fenghua, vice president of the school.

The school produced three 2004 Olympic gold medalists, including Zhang Yining, who won two gold medals in table tennis and yesterday won the 2008 gold medal in women's singles. A current gymnastics champion, He Kexin, is a graduate of the school. She is among the gymnasts whose ages are being investigated by the International Olympic Committee.

Most students are from Beijing but others leave parents behind, their stay here funded by the government. A 9-year-old table tennis prodigy, Wu Jia Mu Wa, said he grew up in a northern province, "just a 12-hour train ride" away, before his parents moved to Beijing so he could attend the sports school. The boy lives at the school and sees his parents probably five days a week, he said.

The place looks institutional - clean, but not fancy. Built in 1958 as a recreational center, it became a sports school in 1986. It isn't some gulag. Children are allowed to laugh. A young table tennis player ate ice cream before an older man picked him up and they departed on a moped. Dorm rooms look like typical preschool rooms, clothing hanging everywhere.

Business comes first, though. A young boy returned 135 straight Ping-Pong balls delivered rapid-fire from a huge bowl of balls. None of the players at the 20 Ping-Pong tables in use were playing games. The players were just practicing returns of serves.

Downstairs, the elementary-school-age male gymnasts all had four-pack abs. They didn't seem big enough yet to have six packs.

The place shows what sports have traditionally been most important in China. Not basketball or track and field. Instruction comes in Ping-Pong, badminton, weightlifting, gymnastics, volleyball, tennis, boxing, free combat, and the martial arts of Wushu and taekwondo.

Children have to test their way in, with about two-thirds on scholarship, said Shi, the school vice president. Those on scholarships lose them if their potential or development is insufficient. The others pay just over $4,000 a year, but those students aren't on the fast track.

The female gymnasts were at least 6 years old, school employees said, but none looked older than that, and clearly these pixies-in-training hadn't picked up the sport in the last month. Under a coach's stern eye, the girls flipped around expertly but also showed artistic flourish. They changed the CD music for floor programs themselves.

There were no 10-year-old female gymnasts here - "too old," the coach said - since most athletes here are several rungs from competing for spots on the national teams in China's vast sports network. In all the sports, children often focus on technique for up to three years before competing.

"The sports schools in some ways are a metaphor for Chinese culture as a whole," said Jamie Metzl, an American and executive vice president of the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to strengthening relationships between the United States and Asian nations.

"American athletes, there's a story about some kid in the middle of Idaho and they started running," Metzl said. "In China, everybody seems to have the same story - they were identified when they were 4 because they had long arms or double-jointed elbows, and then they're incorporated into this little system that is designed to build champions.

"Our system is designed for the people with passion and talent, but ours is a much more organic process. Theirs is much more centrally organized. China is a country run by engineers."

Asked what sports-school graduates are qualified to do if they don't play sports professionally, Shi mentioned working at a sports club. Chinese athletes often accept scholarships to U.S. colleges because that allows them to get off the sports-school track and study something like business.

"That's been one of the dangers of this system - they are really left to their own devices, without skills, without an education," Metzl said, mentioning the parallel with American college athletes who leave without a degree. "They are denied their childhood in pursuit of this magical goal. The nation will achieve its glory by tapping them - like being tapped for the armed forces.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that in China, the Chinese term for a retired athlete is the same as for a retired serviceman - 'veteran.' "

Everybody seems to know where he or she stands.

Shi was asked to imagine the school's failing to produce any of this year's Chinese Olympians. Through a translator, she said, "There's no way."

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com.

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