Allegations of abuse at Chinese sports school

British Olympic rowing great Sir Matthew Pinsent recently visited Beijing’s Shichahai Sports School (a special school that trains gymnasts). In a subsequent BBC report, he alledged abuse of the students and a harsh Soviet-era ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality at the school.

“It was a pretty disturbing experience. I know it is gymnastics and that sport has to start its athletes young but I have to say I was really shocked by some of what was going on. I was wondering whether the western approach compared to the eastern approach is a bit different but I do think those kids are being abused.”

“When I talked to the vice principals they said hitting was against the law, but then there were parents who want you to do it. They said this is what they needed to do to make them hard.”

One boy at the school admitted that beatings were sometimes administered following serious mistakes but went on to say that it only meant that the coaches cared about them. Perhaps shockingly, China has more than 4,000 similar sporting schools training potential Olympic medal winners.

The school’s director, Mr. Liu Hongbin, responded by declaring the need for “discipline and order” among his young charges and that sometimes beating children was necessary to improve performance. Another offcial was quoted as saying: “This is the breeding ground of our Olympic heroes. They make us proud of being Chinese.”

The I.O.C. expressed concern about the reports but refused to condemn China, saying that people should not jump to conclusions. The British Olympic Association also distanced itself and refused to discuss Chinese methods. Only the International Gymnastics Federation said that they would talk to the Chinese about the allegations.

If widespread, then certainly China’s ultra-strict methods are not for the faint-hearted. However, where does one draw the line? At what point does one accept cultural differences and/or declare outrage at the beatings of children and a Soviet-type quest for national glory? Certainly, schools like the one Sir Matthew describes are a far cry from the famed and much-envied Australian sporting academies of excellence which have made the country a dominant force in many sports. Is it naive for Sir Matthew to question his earlier belief that giving the Games to China would help open up the country to the rest of the world and have a positive overall effect?

UPDATE: Britain’s culture secretary Tessa Jowell has advised a full investigation into the allegations: “”We simply can not have young people in a sense being sacrificed in the interests of medal glory.”

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

I know that some couches do go over the top and take out their anger on people, but I’m skeptical as to whether there is wide spread or if it should be counted as ‘abuse’. I think that it is more that a western observer isn’t used to how things are in A) sports B) Asia.

I watched a western journalist on TV not so long ago picking up on all of the things that he saw as being wrong in a Chinese training camp, and to be honest it was pretty much the same as I saw when I was being trained in martial arts, and it was pretty much the same thing that I for saw in competitive sports training when I lived in the west.

How many people out there can honestly say that their football couch never wacked them round the head for costing the team a game at least once, or whose gymnastics coach never made them preform a routine that physically hurt?

You simply can’t reach the top of a competitive sport without this kind of treatment.

If a couch let hi students become fat and sloppy, o didn’t pick up somebody on their form, they wouldn’t be worth the huge sums of money that they are being paid.

November 18, 2005 @ 5:46 am | Comment

Martial arts training and gymnastics is generally tough in Asia.

I was in the Wushu club back in Singapore, and the senior members used to kick my legs underneath me to improve my balance. I didn’t really mind now even though at the time I wanted to strangle them (of course they’d have beaten the shit out of me if I tried :p).

And I once saw a video in Japan where this judo instructor kept hitting his students, but they kept on training.

Most men in Singapore and South Korea sooner or later also have to undergo compulsory military training, and this is nothing compared to that.

So yeah, I don’t think this is really a big deal. A litting capital punishment here and there helps, as long as the scars aren’t permanent.

November 18, 2005 @ 6:05 am | Comment

As you may have guessed from the post, I tend to agree. It’s significant that it would appear that talking to the students about issues of abuse would likely to be met with a rather bemused lack of understanding.

Likewise, the general population would be far more likely to alude to the potential of representing China in international sport and any show of excellence resulting in bringing glory to the motherland or some such as opposed to any issues of harshness or abuse in the training regime.

In 1992 in Beijing, I remember seeing a lady who could be described as somewhat freakish in appearance – unnaturally tall and with *extremely* long legs. Turns out that she was an ex-China national volleyball player in her youth. We all suspected that only performance-enhancing drugs could achieve such mutation. Only a guess mind.

November 18, 2005 @ 6:16 am | Comment

What in the world does this have to do with Soviet Union?

Poor Britts…

November 18, 2005 @ 7:42 am | Comment

Well I would have to agree with Sir Matthew. We got away from the idea of beating kids in schools a while ago – I can safely say that I was never hit over the head because we lost a game. Our house master would just say “ok, nice try, guys”. If we hadn’t played our best, he’d criticise us verbally, perhaps train us harder. But, hey, I guess he wasn’t the kind of small-dicked jerk that takes his frustration out on people under his control.

If this is normal behaviour in China, Asia, whatever, then that still doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable. I’m not the kind of person to impose my views on anyone, but there are some basic concepts that I think should transcend cultures. After all, some Muslims try to justify wife beatings by saying it’s “the Islamic way”. The CCP tries to justify the current political system by arguing that “Western democracy won’t work in China”.

At the end of the day, a small physical rebuke for doing something bad like harrassing another student or destroying property can be justified. But hitting kids because they don’t perform as you want them to cannot be acceptable. Who cares if parents “want them beaten”? It’s battery – just because they’re under 18/21 doesn’t mean you can do with them as you please.

Whether this is happening because of Beijing 2008 or not is difficult to say – Chinese athletes have always been pushed hard in the past. But I think it is a bad sign if China is taking it so seriously that it is treating its athletes badly. People are trying to make excuses for China (and other countries), but it would be a sign of obsessive nationalism. Who cares if their country doesn’t come out with XX gold medals, tops the table, etc? How does that make people’s lives any better? It doesn’t – it just buffs the egos of self-absorbed, insecure nationalists that feel the need to wrap themselves in flags to feel better about their place in the world.

I love sport and enjoy it when we win. Winning the Ashes was great – but did I give a damn that we lost to Pakistan in the first test? No. Why should I? How did that affect my life? It didn’t, so I shrugged my shoulders and got on with the rest of the day.

November 18, 2005 @ 8:49 am | Comment

When you are sucessful and do things in a different way, a small number of people will always say bad things to discount what you have achieved. The best way is just to ignore them.

Often, they say bad things about you, and at the same time, they claim the high moral ground. In this case, it is the so-called abuse. And in the economical field, when you are doing well, it is the prisoner labors, poor working conditions, worker’s rights, etc.

November 18, 2005 @ 11:08 am | Comment

Andrew Lim:

When I was begining my training, my sensei made me stand on one leg with my other leg out to the side, with a large weight balanced on it. He also used to stand behind you when you did the splits and push down until you couldn’t stand it any more.

In the west, a couch who did this to children might be accused of child abuse, and might be thrown out, but I went along willingly and paid for the privilage. It was hard, and painful, but it gave me a kick that could take your head off, and a good preformance boost that people who are taught martial arts in the west often don’t get.

I imagine that the same is true for these Chinese gynasts.

November 18, 2005 @ 11:38 am | Comment

the military training in many areas/countries are even tougher.
eg taiwan, singapore.

i guess the question is if the kids are going to these schools voluntarily or not.

November 18, 2005 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

but I went along willingly and paid for the privilage.

That’s the big difference, ACB – you decided to. We don’t know if this is true for the kids.

Don’t forget, in China, parents have a lot more control over their kid’s lives. Here in Shangai that control may extend into the mid-or late- 20s. Parents may make major decisions with little or no input from the kid.

The one serious Chinese athlete I met (an archer) had no personal choice in the matter. Because of his physique, he was simply selected from middle school to attend an athletic academy.

So I’m with sun bin, in order to evaluate the story we need to know if the kids want to train this way — or even if they want to be athletes.

November 18, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

“Cultural differences”????

So, it’s okay to hit athletes but not terrorists?

November 18, 2005 @ 10:24 pm | Comment

Well, judging from what I read, I would say that the kids at the schools are there as part of a system which identifies talented youngsters and sends them to special schools. Is that voluntary? As good as, I’d say. However, would any child and/or parents not wish to study at such a prestigious place with the possibility of national greatness/bringing glory to the motherland? I doubt it.

The Yahoo UK article which I linked to also mentions a couple of veteran atheletes who admitted that such harsh training methods are not only commonplace but are also evident during the entire sporting career of the athelete – not just when they are very young.

November 19, 2005 @ 2:32 am | Comment

Tetsuaki

Nothing to do with the Soviet Union mate. ‘Soviet-era’ and ‘Soviet-type’ quests for national glory and greatness – you’ll hear such talk in today’s China, due in part to China’s recent resurgence.

During the 60s and 70s the S.U. and the Eastern Bloc nations talked in similar terms about Olympic medal glory. Doesn’t anyone remember those grotesque Soviet/Eastern European femal shot-putters? The swarthy ones with beards? Or East Germany’s steroid-fuelled dominance?

November 19, 2005 @ 3:19 am | Comment

The worst aspect of what’s going on here is that most of these child athletes are in no position to defend themselves or their interests. They are drawn from across the country, and most are from extremely impoverished areas. Being selected to attend one of the national sports training academies is their only way out. For many, the choice is to either endure these extreme training regimens, and pretend to like it, or grow up as their parents have: part of China’s uneducated, unskilled army of countryside workers. In other words, be a respectable member of China’s new cast of athlete heros, or otherwise a total nobody with no other chances or opportunities. Black and white.

I can’t imagine the pressure these kids face, knowing that their entire family is counting on them. When a parent says “Go ahead! Hit my daughter! Do whatever you have to do MAKE HER WIN!”, something is terribly wrong. It has nothing to do with nationalism.

November 19, 2005 @ 4:38 am | Comment

Remember the case where the Chinese Olympic medal-winning diver was kicked off the team/threatened to be kicked off because she was having sex?

Talk about extreme…….

November 19, 2005 @ 6:32 am | Comment

Shanghai Slim

I’m just saying that people will put up with this kind of regement because it will give them a head start over the competition. It is firm and it is strict, but it works. At least as far as athletic ability is concerned.

November 19, 2005 @ 11:41 am | Comment

What about that 3 year year old kid in India forced by the guy who bought him from his mother to run a marathon every second or third day?

November 19, 2005 @ 3:41 pm | Comment

“What about that 3 year year old kid in India forced by the guy who bought him from his mother to run a marathon every second or third day?”

Yeah, I suppose we have to put our hands up in the air about that because “Indian culture” dictates that poor kids get treated like a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

Whereas if it’s a Communist government blocking access to some blog, all hell breaks lose ;)

November 19, 2005 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

Yeah, I suppose we have to put our hands up in the air about that because “Indian culture” dictates that poor kids get treated like a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

Whereas if it’s a Communist government blocking access to some blog, all hell breaks lose ;)

Good one Raj. Best laugh I’ve had in days mate. So true man, so true…all hell certainly does break loose.

November 20, 2005 @ 4:03 am | Comment

While I understand that there is a bit of difference in that this is a school, what about the many examples in the US of similar behavior or “pushing kids to the limit” that exist and go totally unpunished. I spent over 5 years at a special training program (which was an elite after school sporting regime) in China and spent 10 years playing competitive sports in the US. While I know not all American parents take things to the extreme, there are a lot that do, and for their kids, a situation like China where its impersonal “abuse” (from teacher or coach) is a lot better than being from a parent.

November 21, 2005 @ 8:41 am | Comment

“If this is normal behaviour in China, Asia, whatever, then that still doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable. I’m not the kind of person to impose my views on anyone, but there are some basic concepts that I think should transcend cultures.”

Aren’t you imposing your views of what’s “morally acceptable” on the Chinese in this case? I’m not saying what they’re doing is right or wrong; that’s just the way it is. It’s just that there are reasons China has one of the top gymnastics teams in the world. What about Bella Karoly, the Romanian-turned US womens gymnastics coach? I seem to remember hearing that he wasn’t the nicest of coaches either…

“Well I would have to agree with Sir Matthew. We got away from the idea of beating kids in schools a while ago – I can safely say that I was never hit over the head because we lost a game. Our house master would just say “ok, nice try, guys”. If we hadn’t played our best, he’d criticise us verbally, perhaps train us harder. But, hey, I guess he wasn’t the kind of small-dicked jerk that takes his frustration out on people under his control.”

It sounds like you think China is some backassward country that’s less civilized because they use corporal punishment. Countries that stopped corporal punishment to just to avoid people suing the hell out of each other aren’t necessarily better.

Oh, and unless you’re some kind of expert on Chinese dicks, I wouldn’t go around assuming that Chinese coaches have small ones. Some people might think you’re racist.

June 17, 2006 @ 1:46 am | Comment

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