China took home 36 golds at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, 10 more than its Rio tally of 26 in 2016. And it has once again led to many wondering what makes China so good at the Olympics now. The answer lies in a streamlined mechanism wherein the government and a lot of private agencies get involved with young athletes and nurture them to bring laurels to their country.
Special spotters are recruited to select children in the age group of 3 to 5 years from all over the country. Under the central scheme adopted by the Chinese government two years before Beijing Olympics 2008, sports academies train these children. When this started thirteen years ago, only 300 sports academies were functional. The number is now 2000 across the country and the government allocates huge funds to train athletes at these centers.
Under the central scheme, the government has taken responsibility for all the athletes. From personal coaches to training methods to modern equipment, they get it all without having to think about the cost. Such is the importance accorded to proper training. Every athlete participating in the Olympics undergoes a mandatory 350-days training. This is done out of respect for China’s Confucian beliefs and is called the structured training method.
China gives importance to winning gold as opposed to just winning any medal. The government has taken it upon itself to bring in as many gold medals as possible. They believe it sends an important message to the outside world about how far China has come as a nation and the importance of gold-winning athletes in shaping the country’s GDP. As things stand, China is a dominant force in badminton, table tennis, and gymnastics. However, in Tokyo, China found its place even in swimming, weightlifting, fencing, and rowing.
The Medal-Manufacturing System
Rooted in the Soviet model, the Chinese system relies on the state to scout tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2,000 government-run sports schools. 1 in 10 children train in these schools and 5 million children are exhausting themselves every day with one single objective: to maximize the Chinese golden harvest. Beijing has focused on less prominent sports that are underfunded in the West or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.
It’s no coincidence that nearly 75 percent of the Olympic golds China has won since 1984 are in just six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics, and weight lifting. More than two-thirds of China’s golds have come courtesy of female champions, and nearly 70 percent of its Tokyo delegation were women.
For Beijing’s sports czars, it didn’t matter that weight lifting has no mass appeal in China or that the preteen girls funneled into the system had no idea that such a sport even existed. At the weight lifting national team’s training center in Beijing, a giant Chinese flag covers an entire wall, reminding lifters that their duty is to the nation, not to self.
“The system is highly efficient,” said Li Hao, the head of the weight lifting squad at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and the current Director of the anti-doping department at the Center for Weight Lifting, Wrestling, and Judo at the General Administration of Sport of China. “It’s probably why our weight lifting is more advanced than other countries and regions.”
The first essay that Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist revolution, wrote was about the need for a country dismissed as “the sick man of Asia” to develop its muscle.
The Cost of the Sports System: Athlete Abuse
The sacrifices made by China’s Olympians are intense. Academic instruction in sports schools remains paltry, and some world champions share dorm rooms with others. They are lucky to see their family a few times a year.
After the Chinese lifter Liao Qiuyun competed in the 55-kilogram weight division in Tokyo, it was a journalist from her home province who passed her a message from her parents.
Another athlete, Jessica Shuran Yu, who was born, raised, and trained in China and competed in the 2017 world championships before helping to coach junior skaters, told the Guardian that a “culture of physical discipline” was common in the country, with athletes also frequently criticized as “lazy”, “stupid”, “retarded”, “useless” and “fat”.
Yu said she was regularly hit with a plastic skate guard after she made mistakes and another punishment involved being kicked so hard with the toe-pick of a skate that it bloodied her shin and left a lasting scar.
“The abuse started from the age of 11 when I started being told to reach out a hand whenever I made mistakes,” she said. “On especially bad days, I would get hit more than 10 times in a row until my skin was raw.”
“When I was 14 and going through puberty, I started to struggle with my jumps because I was gaining weight. I was called over and kicked on the bone of my shin with a toe-pick of a blade and made to try again. I wasn’t allowed to limp or cry.”
“Most of the time such abuse happened in front of other skaters in the rink. I didn’t tell any of my friends, adults at school, or my federation because I was incredibly humiliated. I was made to feel so small. It was dehumanizing.”
“It hurts me to know that this abuse is still happening. Many athletes and coaches believe that such behavior is necessary and normal in China. It is also hard for Chinese athletes to speak out. They could lose their spot and their careers could end. But as a Singaporean athlete who trained in China, I feel I am in a unique position.”
For female weight lifters, the costs of China’s sports system are that much greater. While divers and gymnasts must share proceeds from endorsement deals with the state, at least they can leverage their success after retirement. But advertisers don’t tend to be drawn to female weight lifters.
Under the Chinese flag and Olympics’ emblem, these young souls train with the dream of becoming world champions one day. Their day consists of, eating, training, studying, and sleeping. Even though the exact training schedule is not mentioned by any Chinese official, sources state that it is anywhere around 18–20 hours/week, to put that in comparison, any child at a normal school trains for 2–3 hours/week.
While kids train, their bodies grow with age, with the rise in weight, they have to train even harder to maintain that ‘desired’ height-to-weight ratio. Nowadays, the focus on studies and outer-world activities is slightly higher than that of the past.
The consequences of the children’s intensive training are often felt years later during adolescence: malformation of the vertebrae, chronic articular pains, lesions in the bones, etc.
Experts say this is indicative of where the "danger" lies - when nationalism appears to have gone too far, even for the state. "The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) tries to exploit online nationalism for its purposes, but stories like these show that "Exploiting nationalist sentiment is like riding a tiger. Once onboard, it is difficult to control and hard to get off."
The Chinese are not the only nation with this problem, a Human Rights Watch report titled “ I was hit so many times that I can’t count” has found that child athletes in Japan often suffer physical and verbal abuse and sometimes sexual abuse during training after documenting the experiences of over 800 athletes in 50 sports.
Clear and comprehensive reform is needed to eliminate these practices and protect children. Child abuse, including child abuse in sport, requires criminal legal accountability and remedy. Taking decisive action to protect child athletes will send a message that their health and well-being matter, place abusive coaches on notice that their behavior will no longer be tolerated. Ultimately, participation in sport should provide children with the joy of play, and with an opportunity for physical and mental development and growth.
About the author
Rohit Nuvvula is presently a TAS (Tata Administrative Services) probationer and has completed his MBA from SPJIMR, Mumbai.
He is also a trekker by passion and enjoys playing football, running, cycling and has been a Vippasana practioner for 5 years.
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