SHANGHAI — When China’s champion 10-meter platform diver suffered a detached retina while training, a year after winning a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, family members and fans speculated about the imminent end of a great career.
The parents of the diver, Hu Jia, had surrendered him to trainers from the Chinese sports establishment at the age of 10, and had seen little of him since then. In an interview with a Chinese newspaper after the diver’s injury, his father suggested that this was sacrifice enough. Had he known his son risked blindness, the father said, “I would never have sent him off to dive.”
But less than two months before China hosts the Olympics for the first time, Mr. Hu is training and competing fiercely again, aiming to bolster a national diving squad that China hopes will dominate the sport this summer.
“The Beijing Olympics is an enormous glory to our generation,” Mr. Hu, whose other retina was also injured, was quoted in the Chinese media as saying last year. Speaking of another gold medal, he added, “I will do my utmost to grab one, unless my eyes are really blind.”
Pressured by the national athletic system and tempted by the commercial riches awaiting star performers in the 2008 Games, China’s athletes are pushing themselves to their limits and beyond, causing some to risk their health in pursuit of nationalist glory.
“An astonishing amount of manpower, money and goods have been poured in, so much so that it’s inappropriate to be revealed publicly,” said Lu Yuanzhen, a professor of sports sociology at the Academy of Sports Sciences at South China Normal University. If the country’s athletes do not perform up to expectations, he added, “the entire nation and its people will lose face.”
Since surpassing Russia to win the second most gold medals in the 2004 Olympics, its highest ranking ever, China has held an unofficial but undeniable ambition to cap the hosting of the Games by surpassing the United States and finishing atop the medal board.
The resulting pressure is felt by nearly all of China’s Olympic aspirants, from still largely unheralded performers in relatively unglamorous sports to the country’s brightest marquee names, like Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets center who sat out the final two months of the N.B.A. season with a stress fracture in his left foot but is still expected to play for China’s national team.
Athletes regarded as potential gold medalists have been urged out of retirement, and some female stars have been urged to resume training and competing soon after giving birth. Previous gold medal winners, meanwhile, have heard for four years that failure to pull off a repeat victory will let the whole nation down. Many have trained for the Games despite serious injuries. A female weight lifter, Tang Gonghong, persevered until early this year despite having such high blood pressure that her chief coach said it “threatens her life at any moment.”
These pressures can perhaps be seen most clearly in the recent experience of Liu Xiang, a Chinese track athlete who became a national hero and the country’s most popular sports star in Athens when he won the 110-meter men’s hurdles, a sport in which China had never excelled. Mr. Liu’s coach was recently quoted in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, as saying, “Officials from the State General Administration of Sport once told us that if Liu cannot win another gold medal in Beijing, all of his previous achievements will become meaningless.”
So far, Mr. Liu has not had to contend with a serious injury. But last August, after winning the track world championships in Japan, he spoke of the agony of high expectations. “I’ve been tortured these days,” Mr. Liu said. “I was afraid of speaking too much. I’ve never been so nervous; more nervous than in the Olympics, because there’s too much attention on me.”
For many athletes, playing through injuries is standard practice. Most of China’s Olympic-caliber competitors are tightly controlled by a system that manages almost every aspect of their lives, often from early childhood. This includes housing, education, medical care and interactions with the public and the news media. In this system, decisions about training regimens and the risks of injuries do not get much of a public airing. The case of Zheng Jie, a top female doubles tennis player, however, provides a glimpse of how the obligation to perform often operates.
Despite a painful ankle injury, Ms. Zheng played a punishing schedule last year to gain tour points required to compete in the Olympics. In a news conference after she lost in the first round of the French Open, she broke down in tears. “The pain in my foot was so strong I could hardly concentrate,” she said.
Ms. Zheng said her doctor had told her that she risked permanent injury if she kept playing without treatment and rest. But in an interview, she said her coach denied her request to concede the French Open match. In a television interview after her defeat, the coach, Jiang Hongwei, said Ms. Zheng and her teammate, Yan Zi, “had too much concern for their injuries, which was an important factor in their performance.”
“The philosophy of our sports system has several bad points,” said Chen Peide, former director of the Zhejiang Province Sports Bureau. “Urging people to tenaciously strive to succeed, to be faster, to jump higher, to be stronger and to win more gold medals usually comes at the expense of athletes’ health.
“When they’re having a 100- or 102-degree fever, we tell them not to give up so easily,” he said.
Mr. Chen said that a Communist war slogan, “Don’t retreat from the front lines with light injuries,” was a pet phrase of Chinese athletes and coaches.
While Ms. Zheng invoked her doctor’s advice in appealing to her coach, for many other Olympics hopefuls, medical decisions are made without consulting medical professionals.
“The athletes themselves basically have no idea of their injuries and they usually don’t have a say” in how they are treated, said Dr. Wang Yubin, the medical director for the sports injury department at Shanghai East International Medical Center. Decisions about how to handle injuries of important athletes, he said, are made by officials of the sporting establishment.
Sacrificing for a Payoff
If it is true that the system pushes athletes hard, many athletes are just as demanding of themselves. Since the 1980s, when the commercialization of sports began in China, money has become a powerful incentive alongside the drive for glory. “I once treated a national weight-lifting champion and warned him not to carry on in the sport anymore,” Dr. Wang said. “I told both him and his parents that in the worst case, he could be paralyzed for life. The parents replied that there was nothing for their child to do but persevere.
“They said, ‘What else can he do if he doesn’t lift weights?’ ”
Li Zhuo, a retired silver medalist in the women’s weight-lifting 48-kilogram category in 2004, put it another way. “Once you win gold, your status is changed and you become another person,” she said, referring to the monetary awards and business opportunities showered on victors. “One Olympics can change an athlete’s life, and that’s pressure.”
Hu Jia, the gold medal diver, for example, was born to laid-off workers in Hubei Province in central China. When he was 6 years old, his parents piled quilts on the ground, then let him jump from a bed to practice diving. Three years later, he was spotted by a former diver and sent to train with a coach in Guangdong, where he made the provincial team. He was considered relatively untalented by coaches and mocked by the public as a perpetual also-ran before the 2004 Games. But he distinguished himself through unrelenting hard work, eventually beating out the favorite, Tian Liang, for a gold.
Although a spot on this year’s squad is no sure thing, he has shown the same determination in working his way back from injury, forgoing anesthesia during eye surgery because he hoped it would speed recovery. “There are so many difficulties, surgery and injuries on the road, but I have to keep up to the last,” he told a newspaper in Wuhan.
According to a study published in 2000, 24 percent of Chinese divers have had retina injuries. Yu Fen, a former national coach, said the high rate was because of poor screening of young athletes for congenital eye problems and antiquated, high-intensity training methods. Divers wear no goggles, and repeated impact with the water can damage eyes, Chinese medical experts say, especially if divers fail to close their eyes just before hitting the water.
Dr. Wang Yongli, a sports medicine expert at Beijing Sports Hospital who discovered a high incidence of retina damage when he conducted a survey at the end of 1990s, said there had been minor changes in training techniques since then. But he said he did not expect them to have much effect on the rate of injury.
“I don’t have any solid numbers to show what it’s like in other countries, but the rate should be lower compared to what I’ve found in the Chinese team,” Dr. Wang said.
“The training regimen of foreign athletes by no means compares to ours, meaning the hours devoted to training, and the number of dives into the water. Chinese divers are professionals, which means they practice all day long, while Australians and Canadians might be a bank clerk or a dentist, who only spend two hours practicing after work.”
As suggested by the injunction to athletes against retreating from the front lines, China’s national sports system does indeed borrow heavily from wartime, albeit largely from the cold war. Within five years of taking power in 1949, Mao Zedong adopted many of the features of the heavily centralized sports system of China’s then-Communist ally, the Soviet Union.
As in the Soviet Union, China’s new sports establishment was deliberately conceived as an instrument of nation-building, a tool of mass mobilization and even of foreign policy, aimed both at increasing the country’s prestige and promoting feelings of integration among the people.
Experts say, however, that the two systems quickly diverged as ties between Moscow and Beijing soured.
“The Soviet system was centered on industry, with factory sponsors for each team, while the Chinese system was centered on government and military units,” said Susan Brownell, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of “Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China.” “This created an aspect in the Chinese system of intense rivalries between the provinces, as well as between provinces and the central government.”
Selection of athletes at the provincial level may begin when they are as young as 6, experts say, with as many as 2 percent of grade school students flagged as promising. These children are placed in all-expenses-paid sports schools and “filtered” through increasingly intensive competitions that weed out all but an elite 80,000 who find homes on provincial teams. Of those, only a tiny fraction will make the next big step, earning a place on China’s national team.
The Strategy of Success
“Pressure doesn’t just come from the central government, but from each province, and even from the cities the athletes come from,” said Mr. Chen, the former Zhejiang Province Sports Bureau director. “Quotas are assigned to each province, and if a province won several gold medals last time, it should perform at least as well this time. The promotion of sports officials in each province depends on how many medals their province has won.”
In many sports, parents can go years without seeing their children, and may speak to them only once or twice a year. But local and provincial officials are unstintingly attentive, showering gifts on the families during Spring Festival, China’s most important holiday, to make up for the children’s absence.
Major changes to China’s sports policy were instituted at the start of the era of economic reform in the early 1980s. Deng Xiaoping, then China’s top leader, announced the “Ten Year Sports Guidelines” and China returned to Olympic competition after a 32-year absence.
This led to greatly increased spending on sports and new training methods, pioneered in the 1980s by Ma Junren, a legendary coach from Liaoning Province who insisted on multiple, grueling training sessions per day for track athletes rather than the two sessions that were customary in the West. Mr. Ma and many of his runners, known as “Ma’s army,” fell into disrepute and were withdrawn from Olympics competition in the late 1990s when many tested positive for steroids.
A pillar of China’s recent strong rise in the Olympics-medal tallies has been the astute targeting of sports where medal opportunities seem greatest. In some categories, competition is relatively thin.
“The Chinese have been very strategic in where they have put their energies,” said Ms. Brownell, a visiting professor at Beijing Sport University. “They have put major efforts into training for new events, so that they can set records as soon as the events come into effect. This has been the case with the triple jump, the pole vault and with women’s weight lifting.”
Speaking of women’s weight lifting, Dai Guangyu, former vice chairman of the China Weight Lifting Association, said China’s national system had allowed it to invest in developing female weight lifters beginning in the 1980s. “Other countries didn’t have that many people involved,” Mr. Dai said.
Since the 2000 Olympics, when women’s weight lifting was introduced, China has won half of the 14 gold medals awarded, and on the eve of the Beijing Games, pressure is as high in this sport as in any to at least hold the line on gold medals. Mr. Dai acknowledged that a successful push in this sport — widely seen as dangerous and unglamorous, making it hard for muscle-bound women to find work or spouses when their careers end — depends on recruiting among the rural poor. With its heavy training, it also depends on being able to closely control an athlete’s life.
Wang Mingjuan, one of three aspirants to represent China in the 48-kilogram category, was asked to try out recently in a higher weight category to give China an even better shot at winning medals. But she injured her lower back and has returned to her normal weight class. Her parents, who say they see her once every three or four years, said she had told them in their last phone call not to worry.
“We don’t have much money, and the life was hard,” her mother, Wang Meiyu, said, explaining the decision to send her to a sports school at the age of 9. “She was so little and we couldn’t see her often, but when we visited, my heart felt bitter and sour. It was so tough.”
Unless Ms. Wang and her teammates win gold, Chen Xiaomin, a women’s weight-lifting champion in the 2000 Olympics, said the bitterness was likely to continue. “It takes at least 10 years’ practice before you can become a world champion,” Ms. Chen said. “Once you win a world championship, you can go to college for free, or work, or become an official. If you don’t, you get nothing but injuries all over your body. No diploma, no job, no skill.”
[Via NY Times]