China's athletes march toward one goal — gold

China's Olympic training starts very young at the Shichahai Sports School.
China's Olympic training starts very young at the Shichahai Sports School.

HANGZHOU, China — Lithe and swift, 16-year-old Lu Mingjia has become an elite women's long jumper for China, but not because of her deep love for the track and field event.

Rather, trainers looked at her body a few years ago, took out a tape measure and a stopwatch, and decided how she could be groomed to lift her nation through sport.

"My teacher told me I'm suitable for the long jump because of my speed," Lu said shyly.

So Lu ended up as a student at the Zhejiang College of Sports, one of the many state-run sports schools around China that are expanding their training facilities and leading China's ascent toward superpower status in the sports realm.

China's system of sports schools will get a higher profile this year because China may approach — and hopes to surpass — the United States in the gold medal count at the Beijing Olympic Games. Nearly all of its Olympians emerge from the 3,000 or so sports schools, which have some 400,000 student athletes.

The sports schools focus resolutely on winning Olympic gold medals. Silver and bronze medals won't do. Athletes endure training regimes that are more punishing than anything in the West, and are treated as soldiers going to battle. In a way, China's campaign for Olympic glory symbolizes the state's rise — with little regard for individual liberty or rights but often attaining great success and later enshrining winners as heroes.

"Chinese sport is like the military. It's a big hierarchy. The athlete is the lowest in the hierarchy," said Josef Capousek, an Olympic medal-winning German coach who was fired a few weeks ago as head coach of China's Olympic canoe and kayak team.

For most Chinese athletes, taking pleasure in the sport they practice is irrelevant.

"In other countries, the first step is to enjoy the sport. And step by step, you get better," Capousek said. "But here, from the beginning, they say, 'You must do sports. You're strong. You're big.' "

The best athletes get sent to sports schools such as the Zhejiang College of Sports, which opened its doors in 2006 with the equivalent of $170 million budgeted for world-class facilities, including Olympic swimming and diving pools, indoor and outdoor track facilities and a smattering of foreign coaches.

The school talks of its "gold medal culture," and 25 of its athletes have joined China's Olympic squad, ready to compete for gold in sports such as canoeing, shooting and table tennis.

Su Zhiqing, the deputy secretary of the Communist Party cell at the college, accompanied a visitor on a tour — showing obvious pride in the facilities.

"We visited training venues in Australia, France and Germany," Su said. "We are at the same level, or even better, in terms of our facilities."

China is one of the few countries that still operate state-run sports schools modeled on the system the former Soviet Union.

"Statistics show that 95 percent of good athletes — gold medalists and world champions — are from sports schools like ours," said Shi Fenghua, the vice principal of the Shichahai Sports School in Beijing, China's capital, where some students enter at age six.

The centralized system, she said, allows the state to marshal "all the resources and provide medical and training services to all these athletes."

While the system might seem a throwback to the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, some Western scholars acknowledge that it has benefits. Students receive free training, room and board, and a small stipend. Athletes in less glamorous sports can dedicate themselves fulltime to their sport, rather than training on the side while having to earn a living.

"If you are supported by your sport, you have the luxury of training all day long," said Susan Brownell, an anthropologist and expert on China's sports system who's on leave from her post at the University of Missouri in St. Louis to study China's Olympics.

Moreover, the system gives equal support to women athletes, who won 62 percent of China's 32 gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games.

The state-run system requires huge resources, however. A state newspaper recently quoted a sports ministry official saying that China spends more than $7 million for every gold medal it wins.

If the system has its downside, few people would be as familiar with them as Capousek, 62, the Prague-born coach who spent three years in China trying to boost its canoe/kayak team to world-class levels.

As head coach, he led Germany's powerhouse canoe team to 17 gold medals during four Olympics. Like many foreign coaches tantalized by offers from China, Capousek arrived in 2005 to discover that expectations for a great leap forward were unrealistic.

"There are many disciplines of sport where it's not possible in three or four years to go from nothing to 100. You need eight or 10 years," Capousek said.

Capousek said he gave Chinese athletes more freedom, greater respect and more information about why they were asked to train in a certain fashion, provoking clashes with Chinese sports officials.

The Chinese athletes were accustomed to going all-out every day, with little time for recovery and little emphasis on training for endurance or other skills, he said.

Coaches in China commonly use heavy pressure and tougher tactics than coaches n the West do. A marathon runner, Sun Yingjie, complained publicly two years ago that her coach beat her unconscious, whipping her with a belt, in abuse that lasted about a decade.

The clash of styles has led to headlines. In March, China fired Elisabeth Loisel, the French coach of its Olympics women's soccer team. China's men's soccer coach, Ratomir Dujkovic, a Serb, was sacked earlier this month, three weeks before the Games begin.

Capousek thinks he lost his job in late June to a People's Liberation Army coach so that Chinese could take credit for any success in canoeing and kayaking.

While Chinese have tapped the know-how of foreign coaches, they've also made astute calculations about how to win more Olympic medals.

After winning the right in 2001 to host this year's Aug. 8-24 Summer Games, Chinese sports authorities launched what they called "project 119," named for the number of Olympic medals then up for grabs in medal-rich disciplines such as track and field (47), swimming (34), and other water sports such as canoeing, kayaking and sailing (41). Three new medal events have been added, and the total now comes to 122.

"It is our country's project on sports where we lag behind, those sports categories that focus a lot on physique or body strength," said Shi, the Beijing sports school vice principal.

Sports schools across China quickly began to focus on those categories.

"We say, whoever wins in these three categories, wins the whole world," said Hu Zhongdong, vice president of the Zhejiang College of Sports. "Actually, we've improved in all of them."

Some athletes already have been beneficiaries of the new focus, led by Liu Xiang, a 110-meter hurdler who won gold at Athens and has become China's best-known athlete, along with Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets basketball star.

Dozens of athletes sprinted up and down the track at the Zhejiang school one recent midsummer day. Among them was Lu Mingjia , the long jumper, who acknowledged that her longest jump of 6.44 meters was slightly short of the 6.65 meters needed to qualify for China's Olympic squad this year.

But she's only 16, and the 2012 Olympics still lie ahead.

"I want to be a world champion," she said, noting that if she fails, her little brother is also at a sports school, where he's a high jumper. He's 14.

To see a McClatchy video on this story, go to:

More from McClatchy:

Thanks to Olympics, Beijing gets its Eiffel Tower, of sorts

Chinese revel in nation's growth, direction, survey finds

China Rises blog

Related stories from McClatchy DC