China assembled its elite athletes for their final rally before the Olympics, earlier this week; their orders from the government were clear and urgent: “To achieve Olympic glory for the motherland is the sacred mission ordered by Communist Party Central,” Sports Minister Liu Peng told the 639 hand-picked Olympic athletes in their newly issued red-and-yellow uniforms.
“We have to fulfill our historic responsibility,” he exhorted the Chinese Olympians in his speech at a vast government meeting hall.
The Chinese athletes will be under enormous pressure to fulfill the country’s expectations in Beijing when the Olympics begin. Nothing less than gold – and plenty of it – will be acceptable.
Most experts are predicting China will top the gold-medal table, pushing ahead of the United States for the first time. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a country that did not even join the Olympics until 1984. Home advantage is far from the only reason for its expected success.
China has poured massive resources into its Olympic program in the past eight years. Its team this year is the biggest and strongest in its history, with twice as many athletes as it sent to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Its annual sports budget has increased exponentially since 2001. It has hired more than 50 foreign coaches since the last Olympics in 2004, including top coaches from Europe, North America, Australia and the former Soviet Bloc.
But beyond all the money, beyond the high-tech training facilities and the elite coaches, China’s biggest advantage is its ability to mobilize the resources of state power for a tightly focused goal. Everyone in China accepts that “glory for the motherland” is a sacred enough purpose to warrant almost any measure.
To keep them focused on gold medals, the Chinese Olympians have accepted limits on their freedom that would be unthinkable in the West. Most have been virtually sealed off from the outside world for the past 18 months, prohibited from any commercial or social activities that could distract them from their training.
This sense of almost obsessive determination is exemplified by Huang Yubin, the head coach of China’s gymnastics team, who has vowed to leap from a high building if his team fails to improve on its 2004 results. “If we win only one gold again, I will jump off the highest building,” he told the China Daily this week.
It is exemplified by Chinese athletes who keep pushing for Olympic glory even after they suffer serious injuries, including Chinese divers who run the risk of blindness because of repeated injuries to their retinas. One study found that 24 per cent of Chinese divers have had retina injuries, yet they are under heavy pressure to keep competing.
And it is exemplified by China’s apparent willingness to manipulate the official age of its top gymnasts so they can compete in the Olympics this month. There is strong evidence that at least one female gymnast, He Kexin, is only 14 years old, despite Olympic rules requiring a minimum age of 16. Similar questions are being asked about a second gymnast, Jiang Yuyuan.
China quickly supplied passports showing that both are 16, but the country’s state media had repeatedly described He Kexin as 13 or 14 in stories over the past year.
One German coach, hired to guide China’s kayaking and canoeing team, discovered that the Chinese-language version of his contract had stated he would “guarantee” a gold medal.
For the Chinese government, gold is everything. “One gold equals 1,000 silvers,” Olympic officials sometimes tell their coaches.
China is one of the few countries in the world – Cuba and North Korea are perhaps the only others – that still keep alive the old Soviet system of “state amateurism” that reaped huge harvests of gold medals for countries such as East Germany in the communist era.
The entire resources of the national sports system are focused on creating gold-medal winners, using centralized sports academies that bring together the most promising children from an early age, sometimes as young as 5 or 6.
Coaches are sent across China to search for promising children in kindergartens and schoolyards. They look for kids with the right physique who seem particularly agile as they run and jump. The best youngsters are removed from their families and sent to boarding schools, where everything revolves around their training.
As recently as 1984, China had a mere 17,000 athletes at all levels of organized sports – and many of these were not in Olympic sports. Today, there are 400,000 youngsters in China’s state-run athletic academies, where their lives are regimented in a ruthlessly focused drive for perfection.
When the best of these children have developed into Olympians, they are given further help by top scientists, psychologists and technicians. Elite foreign coaches are often hired to push them to the next level. “There’s no doubt that these foreign coaches are helping China’s Olympic troops,” the People’s Daily commented last week. “They are adding wings to the tiger.”
China is also using the best sports technology that it can find from anywhere in the world. The women’s softball team, for example, has purchased a $40,000 state-of-the-art pitching machine with a computerized video component to simulate any pitch that a human can throw. “I have heard that the majority of the team is using the machine and it is beneficial,” said Adam Battersby, the president of ProBatter Sports in Milford, Conn., which sold the machine to the Chinese team.
Money is another key factor. Hefty cash bonuses are awarded to every gold medalist. The most celebrated winners could receive more than one million yuan (about $150,000) in cash bonuses, according to Chinese media reports.
But perhaps the best example of China’s remarkable drive for gold medals is a strategic campaign called Project 119, which aimed to boost China’s performance in three sectors where it traditionally lagged: swimming, athletics and water events such as rowing and sailing. (The project’s name was derived from the fact that there were 119 gold medals available in those sports in 2001 when the campaign began. Today, there are 122 gold medals in those same sports.)
“While we have already taken the dominant position in diving and shooting, if we want to go further and become a really strong Olympic power, we have to dig into these three rich mines,” Chinese state television declared in 2004 when it first revealed the existence of Project 119.
Officials noted that 119 is also the fire emergency telephone number in China. “It brings a sense of warning and urgency to us, reminding us that we need a breakthrough in these sports,” Chinese aquatic sports official Wei Di told Chinese television.
Three years after the project began; it was already achieving some stunning breakthroughs. China won its first-ever gold medal in canoeing at Athens in 2004. And, most spectacularly, China won its first athletics gold in 2004 when Liu Xiang won the 110-metre hurdles.
Overnight, he became a national hero in China. He said it proved that “athletes with yellow skin can run as fast as those with black and white skin.”