This post was edited by ian901110 at 2012-7-24 14:30|
As investment slows, would-be athletes see opportunities outside the gym; 'we lacked freedom as athletes'
By LORETTA CHAO AND LAURIE BURKITT
Clad in red and gold, China's Olympic athletes may still intimidate the competition in London. Many were selected as young as 6 years old to become Olympians and have spent most of their lives in government-subsidized schools and gyms training to win a medal for their country.
Yet this year, China looks to suffer declines in several sports where long-term domination appeared inevitable, including gymnastics, shooting and judo. It also doesn't figure to improve much in the medal-rich sports where it has been weak, such as swimming and track and field.
Top Chinese sports officials aren't boasting about their medal chances in London, declining interviews with The Wall Street Journal and playing down expectations in the state-controlled domestic media.
"In the past four years, other countries and regions have prioritized Olympic preparations," Liu Peng, head of the Chinese General Administration for Sport, told state-run China Daily earlier this month. "We have to be fully prepared for all the difficulties and challenges."
Wall Street Journal projections show China winning 38 gold medals and 92 overall, down from 51 and 100 in 2008.
The Big Letdown
It's common for Olympic hosts to show a slump in the medal tallies four years after their own Games. Like most former hosts, China seems to have slowed its investments in facilities and training, with some exceptions like a $100 million investment in a state-of-the-art pentathlon training facility in Chengdu.
Another big factor at work: China's changing population has more economic options these days—and the state's rigorous Olympic training doesn't look as appealing as it used to.
Chinese athletes with Olympic medal potential see little of their families, and many of the most basic aspects of their lives are directed by the state. At the national training center in Beijing, officials stipulate athletes can eat food only from the center's canteen—even on their days off—out of concerns that tainted meat could cause athletes to fail drug tests, according to the state-run China Daily. (Officials didn't respond to questions about athletes' diets.)
Indeed, some Chinese Olympians paint a painful picture of life inside the sports system. "We all lacked freedom as athletes," says Guo Jingjing, who retired in 2011 after winning four gold medals in diving at the Beijing Games. "You begin so young that you know little else."
The pressure is intense, Guo says, but it helped the Chinese win so many gold medals in 2008. "Americans get so nervous at competitions," she says.
A Rounded Approach
But pressurized training may not be enough this time around. China won the gymnastics team gold in 2008, for instance, but will fight to even win bronze in London. Why? Because China isn't cultivating the same kind of young, all-around athletic talent as the favored U.S., where sports are the main extracurricular activity for millions of children.
U.S. gymnasts, like so many members of the U.S. Olympic team, benefit from a sports culture that encourages children to play multiple sports from an early age. A quarter of China's medals in 2008 came from shooting, table tennis and badminton, sports that aren't known for attracting the world's greatest all-around athletes.
Lu Shanzhen, chief coach of the Chinese women's gymnastics team, says China doesn't "do very well in training all-around athletes" compared with the U.S.
"Their competition system and training system requires all young athletes to participate in all-around competitions," he says.
At China's sports schools, only recently has the emphasis shifted to graduating all-around athletes. "There has been a big debate in China for years about the overemphasis on the pursuit of gold medals," says Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who has written extensively about Chinese sports. "The whole debate has become more about expanding opportunities for the general populace."
Better than Big
In fact, China's top leadership has set a goal to transform China from a "large athletic country" to a "strong athletic country." Since 2010, schools like Beijing Shichahai Sports School, which has produced 33 world champions, have been required to spend more time on academics and less on hard training. The goal is to better prepare the students—many of whom won't make it in into China's national team or into professional sports—for a mainstream life and job, and to make sports schools more attractive to new talent as the schools face declining interest.
Tian Junlin, a badminton coach at Shichahai, says the new focus on academics has also had noticeable impact on athletes on the court that could pay off down the road. "It helps them develop critical thinking and strategy," Tian says. "This is really good, especially for ball-related sports."