In 2008, our televisions, newspapers and conversations were overwhelmed by the Beijing Olympics. Yet while the spotlights in the Bird’s Nest stadium swirled around Liu Xiang and Yao Ming, they failed to highlight the millions who were once their training partners, the millions who gave up all in pursuit of the unattainable, the millions who devoted their lives and lost everyone. Once again, the world ignored the graveyard of aspiring children, the bubble where all contact with the world is lost, the school that will expel you when you are no longer profitable. Let me tell you the stories of a few young people, described by a New York Times reporter, as being “another cog in China’s sports machine”
It’s a machine that begins with the selection of thousands of children by officials most of whom have never participated in the sports themselves. Some are as young as 4 or 5, all of them are younger than you or me, one of them was Xu Jiamin. She was selected for her long legs, short torso and large hands without being given a choice whether to enter or not. Being tall doesn’t mean you are good at volleyball, being flexible doesn’t signal brilliance at gymnastics and being short doesn’t mean you’re good at table tennis and bad at running. I for one fare terribly at table-tennis but excel at running. The selection process ignores many other potential athletes and disregards our freedom of choice.
And yet, the selected throng of 400,000 are dumped into 3,000 sport schools to train seven hours a day. They practice in rooms lit by one low-voltage bulb and sleep in dormitories that reek of urine and sweat. Imagine that you were instructed to be a gymnast at just six. Multiple times each day, you are required to stretch your legs over 2 blocks in the splits. While your legs begin to tremor, your coach walks over, smiles and hands you a timer set at 30 seconds before setting his 70 kg frame on each of your outstretched limbs in turn. The additional weight is just too much to bear and as the seconds tick, the agony wells up inside each of us, tears begin to flow. It’s an inhumane training method, but that’s not all.
For others, it’s not the pain, it’s the approach, it’s the fact that as individuals, we are all different. World number 34 Peng Shuai has thought of leaving the Chinese tennis team not because they’re incompetent but because they force her to play a quick-footed agile game when she excels at powerful baselines. Peng, like many other, has been unable to reach international standards because she never has the chance to train and compete day-in-day-out with the world’s best. European coaches note “She could be a top 10 player, easy.” The one-size-fits all approach just doesn’t cut, nor does the hurt-till-you-scream approach.
Because funding is distributed according only to competition results, coaches are willing to use all method possible in order to win competitions, even if it means doping. 10% of the 2004 olympic team was pruned because of a simple test for endurance booster erythropoietin. Zou Chunlan was instructed by her coach to take “nutrition boosters” that turned out to be steroids. Zou now suffers from the side effects, a beard that must be shaved every couple of days, a prominent Adam’s apple, a deep voice and infertility.
Yet for many, the story only gets worse. Training seven hours a day in a school officials describe as “mostly for academics with sports training just as a spare-time activity”, athletes have little time for education. National new agency Xinhua reports that more than half of all professional athletes face a lack of education which often leads to joblessness in later life.
Zou Chunlan survived the rigorous training and then retired in 1993 as a 4 time national weightlifting champion. That was the end of the honeymoon. deprived of any education, she, like many other athletes failed to find a job. Her injuries, constant fatigue and medical demands piled one on top of another. Although assured upon entry that her future was in safe hands, Zou Chunlan was booted out of the sport school’s kitchen where she had been doing menial jobs. In her own words “I gave my youth to sport but in return, I was thrown out like garbage with no knowledge, no skill and a barren womb”. Yet she’s not alone, Beijing marathon champion Ai Dongmei has to sell her medals to feed her family, weightlifting champion Cai Li died, unable to pay his medical bills and world champion Liu Fei struggles on the 20 dollars earned from tutoring gymnastics.
So what can be done about the problems of the Chinese sports system? The problems of early entry, arbitrary selection methods, terrible practice conditions, inhumane training methods, lack of education and joblessness?
We should introduce different sports to the population by building facilities, organizing teams and providing classes. Introducing mandatory physical education classes in schools can also be an option that not only benefits the sport system but also improves the health of the Chinese population. People can make their own choices when exposed to different sports, we no longer need to force them into choices as we now have individuals whom are truly motivated to achieve their best and to excel in their discipline. Not only does this produce committed athletes, slimming the ranks also allows the government to better focus resources where necessary.
A ban on recruitment of professional athletes until they graduate from middle-school ensures that youngsters are protected from the strain of full-time training until their bodies have developed. This ban also ensures that all students have a middle-level education and the basic skills necessary to find a job. Partnerships between sport schools and local universities allowing athletes to attend university classes enhances training by letting them learn sport theories, training methods and injury prevention. This knowledge could be vital for them to understand how best to train, to help prevent injuries that plague so many others. and how to be coaches in the future so as to foster the next generation of athletes. If they don’t become professionals, they will at least have a university degree on which to build upon.
As described by a deputy director of sports, retired athletes are, “the legacy of China’s economic development”. They gave 65% of their prize money to the sports bureau, their youth to training and their life to raising standards. The sports ministry has the moral obligation to provide assistance after their retirement. There are coaching spots, support staff and administration positions that these former athletes can fill. In addition to securing their future, we also introduce experienced people with inside knowledge to lead and run the sport system, ultimately raising the standards and improving the system.
The old-fashioned training methods also need to be changed. Training should be a process that gradually improves the athlete’s skill, not a time to inflict pain. This achieves long-term success without the long-term damage to their bodies. Coaches also need to recognize that we are all different, that the same methods of training don’t always work. Everyone learns in a different way and the training methods need to reflect this. Coaches should have programs that cater to different people with different strengths and weaknesses instead of giving up on those who don’t fit the traditional mold.
To prevent doping, funding should be allocated based upon population, needs and results. Chinese officials need to crack down on drug use. When pressured to have a drug free olympic, Chinese officials once banned a world-champion for life because of one doping incident. To protect athletes, doping should be rooted out, even if it means losing some athletes because clean silver is always better than tainted gold.
Commercializing part of the sport system has been widely touted and is already in the works. As seen in the examples of the Chinese Basketball League, Chinese Football Association and China Baseball League, partly commercializing sports introduces a competitive flair and monetary incentive that motivates athletes to strive for the best. It also allows better compatibility with international standards as athletes can train and exchange with the best in the world. The ability to spend more time on world tours allows athletes to hone their skills and raise their profile. These all serve to improve the standard within China.
But none of these changes will occur overnight. However, we can make a difference. By talking to different people, noting the problems on our blogs and raising awareness in our community, we show China that we care about these problems. This public awareness campaign, complements ongoing IOC age restrictions and the demand for reform from inside China. This combination of internal, internet and international pressure will awakens Chinese officials to the problems and solutions. We have seen in the past that the government does respond to international pressure. The demands for Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong’s release were heard, the demands for a clean olympic caused even world champions to be banned for life because of doping, and the demands for free press during the olympics meant greater internet access across the board.
Ladies and Gentlemen, by raising awareness, demanding changes, introducing sports to all, limiting the age of recruitment, introducing partnerships with university, aiding athletes after retirement, changing the training methods and commercializing sports, we can usher in a sustainable sport system that nurtures future stars, secures their future and caters to all styles.