A high price for Chinese gold

Times Staff Writer

If anybody feels a pang of jealousy over China’s haul of Olympic gold medals, they need only pause to consider what the athletes went through to get them.

The only mother on China’s team, Xian Dongmei, told reporters after she won her gold medal in judo that she had not seen her 18-month-old daughter in one year, monitoring the girl’s growth only by webcam. Another gold medalist, weightlifter Cao Lei, was kept in such seclusion training for the Olympics that she wasn’t told her mother was dying. She found out only after she had missed the funeral.

Chen Ruolin, a 15-year-old diver, was ordered to skip dinner for one year to keep her body sharp as a razor slicing into the water. The girl weighs 66 pounds.


“To achieve Olympic glory for the motherland is the sacred mission assigned by the Communist Party central,” is how Chinese Sports Minister Liu Peng put it at the beginning of the Games.

The contrast couldn’t be greater than between the Chinese and U.S. athletes. In their post-match interviews, the Americans rambled on about their parents, their siblings, their pets, their hobbies. They repeatedly used the word fun. Shawn Johnson, the 16-year-old gymnast, waxed enthusiastic about the classes she’ll take when she returns to her public high school in West Des Moines, Iowa.

The Chinese athletes generally don’t have pets or hobbies. Or brothers or sisters (since most are products of China’s one-child policy).

While many U.S. team members hauled their parents to Beijing, most Chinese parents had to settle for watching the Games on television. Chinese athletes train up to 10 hours a day, and even the children have only a few hours a day for academic instruction.

“You have no control over your own life. Coaches are with you all the time. People are always watching you, the doctors, even the chefs in the cafeteria. You have no choice but to train so as not to let the others down,” gymnast Chen Yibing told Chinese reporters last week after winning a gold medal on the rings. He said he could count the amount of time he’d spent with his parents “by hours . . . very few hours.”

The Chinese sports system was inspired by the Soviet Union. Whereas many U.S. athletes have ambitious parents to nurture their talents, China’s future champions are drafted as young children for state-run boarding schools. Scouts trawl through the population of schoolchildren for potential champions, plucking out the extremely tall for basketball, the slim and double-jointed for diving -- regardless of whether they know how to swim.

“I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but they said pingpong was right for me,” said Lu Lu, a 20-year-old player at the Xuanwu Sports Academy in Beijing.

After Beijing was chosen in 2001 to host this summer’s Games, China’s sports authorities launched Project 119 (after the number of medals available in track and field, canoeing, sailing, rowing and swimming that were not Chinese strengths) and assigned promising young athletes to focus exclusively on these sports, some of which they’d never heard of.

The final tally gave China 51 gold medals to the United States’ 36, and although the Americans won more medals overall (110 to 100), the statistics allowed the Chinese government to claim victory for what Liu called its “scientific” methods.

“The sports systems of the United States and China are very accurate metaphors for our societies. China is a society run by engineers, based on planning and coordination and central planning,” said Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of the New York-based Asia Society and an Ironman triathlete. “The state is the supreme entity and the role of the individual is to support the state.

“Truth be told, this old Soviet system works. If you are going to scan the whole population of 1.3 billion for a certain body type and then throw vast resources into training them, you will produce champions.”

But the costs are higher than many Westerners would tolerate. China is suspected of using 14-year-old gymnasts and falsifying their ages to get around a rule designed to protect girls’ health during the transition into puberty. In sports where younger athletes are permitted, they often take risks that elsewhere would be unacceptable.

“It’s too dangerous,” diving coach Zhou Jihong said to a Chinese newspaper, speaking of the extreme diet that kept his 15-year-old athlete at 66 pounds. “She has superhuman willpower.”

Chinese athletes, particularly women, tend to be much thinner than their Western counterparts. Guo Jingjing, a gold medalist in diving who weighs 108 pounds, pointed out as much rather ungraciously when she referred to competitor Blythe Hartley as “the fat Canadian.” The 5-foot-5 Hartley weighs 123 pounds.

Guo, 27, suffers from health problems related to diving and is said to have such bad eyesight she can barely see the diving board. It is a common hazard for Chinese divers, who are recruited as young as 6.

“Divers who start at an early age before the eye is fully developed have great chance for injuries,” said Li Fenglian, doctor for the Chinese national diving team. She published a study last year reporting that 26 of 184 divers on the team had retina damage.

Despite the validation provided by the Olympic medal count, China is probably heading in the direction of a more open system where the athletes have more freedom. Having tasted celebrity and the wealth it can bring, many athletes have balked at remaining in a system where they are treated like rank-and-file soldiers.

More sophisticated Chinese are also mindful that being an Olympic superpower doesn’t necessarily translate into world dominance. The 1988 Olympics in Seoul were a huge triumph for the Soviet Union and East Germany, which won 55 and 37 gold medals, respectively.

By the time the next Olympics took place in 1992, both countries were defunct.


Angelina Qu, Nicole Liu and Eliot Gao of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.