The Chinese Medal Factory

Two pieces in the NYT today on the misery of being selected by the state to train as an athlete, each driving home the inherent cruelty in this system. The article also make you wonder whether this is what sports was meant to be. They way you wondered about those East German athletes before the wall came down, the ones injected with hormones and looked like grotesque versions of Charles Atlas.

From the first article:

Yang, one of China’s most successful water sports athletes, has never lived in his apartment. He has not seen his parents in three years. At 24, he lives 250 miles away at his sport’s training center, where he is preparing for the Beijing Olympics.

Yang said he could not stand his life.

For nearly a decade, he has tried to quit canoeing, he told The New York Times during an interview at the training center. He said he would rather attend college or start a business, but acknowledged that he was ill-equipped to do either one.

Many Chinese sports schools, in which more than 250,000 children are enrolled, focus on training at the expense of education. Critics, like the former Olympic diving coach Yu Fen, are calling for changes. They say athletes are unprepared to leave the sports system that has raised them.

“I do not want to work as an athlete, but as an athlete here I have no freedom to choose my future,” Yang said, speaking through the team’s official interpreter. “As a child, I didn’t learn anything but sport, and now what do I do? I can’t do anything else. I have my own dreams, but it is very difficult. I don’t have the foundation to make them come true.”

The article notes, depressingly, that even champion athletes often end up miserable, having trouble paying their bills and having to deal with the effects of hormones they were shot up with. 

Article two is more upsetting, focusing on how Chinese athletes are pressed to keep on training and winning despite injuries. The story of the other Hu Jia – not the activist, but the gold medallist diver – who seriously injured his eye during training, is especially painful.

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.”

Gold medallists here become super-heroes and are showered in gifts and lucrative sponsorships; their faces are everywhere, at least for a few years. It was diver Tian Liang who was ubiquitous when I was here in 2002. Now it’s hurdler Liu Xiang. Is it worth winning all these spoils at the sacrifice of your eyesight? Apparently to Hu Jia it is.

I interviewed a Chinese medallist a few years ago, and it was then that I learned about the “medal factory,” about being torn away from your family and forced to train up to 12 hours a day and living a life essentially of a slave – often a pampered, well-fed and celebrated slave, but a slave nonetheless. Again, it makes you wonder about what it means to be an “amateur” athlete and whether this is what the creators of the moder-day Olympic Games had in mind. 

Read the two articles for the details. It is a good snapshot of the world of athletics in China, a topic that will win increasing coverage this summer as Chinese athletes win one gold medal after another.


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: 78 Comments

Yes and we also all are card carrying members of the Young Pioneers and proud owners of I Heart China T-shirts.

June 24, 2008 @ 4:11 am | Comment


Hahaha… You are a trip, you little green man, you.

June 24, 2008 @ 4:17 am | Comment

Required reading by lovers of mediocrity everywhere of all walks of life, creed, ethnical background, political affiliation shenmede deng deng.

1. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

2. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus

3. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

4. The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by Dalai Lama

5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

6. TEAHOUSE – A Play in Three Acts by LAO SHE

June 24, 2008 @ 4:21 am | Comment

Things The New York Times, American liberals in general, and many commenters at this blog share in common:


Martin Guitars especially 000-18 style

Fender Telecasters.

Gibson Les Paul Deluxes

The music of John Coltrane.

The Bill of Rights.

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt

The Poetry of Robert Frost

Black Walnut Ice Cream

New York Style Pizza

Philly Cheese steaks from Geno’s or Pat’s King of Steaks.


June 24, 2008 @ 4:26 am | Comment

How many medals do you think the PRC, USA, and the Russian Federation will win this year? Price Water House is predicating a slight edge to the PRC this time, even though performance from 2004 would indicate USA winning more medals. Seems distressing that modern nations want to revive eugneics theories from the 30’s again.

June 24, 2008 @ 4:34 am | Comment

I have always been awestruck by readers of THE JOURNAL

June 24, 2008 @ 4:39 am | Comment


Do you have plans to bring back “Those who dare”? We need more Patriotic Vanguard Revolutionaries to counter Counter – Revolutionaries Big and Small.

June 24, 2008 @ 4:58 am | Comment


You ask if it’s a good system. Just so you know: the alternative system in China isn’t the US Olympic Committee and the NCAA, but rather the vacuum that is Indian sports. Should Yang have been left on the farm thrashing wheat and digging ditches, rather than performing in world-level sports? It’s a debatable point, especially from the perspective of Chinese tax-payers who might be wondering *why* they should be paying Yang’s retirement pension. And despite the insinuation above, this topic is discussed in the Chinese press.

But what is not a debatable point, in my opinion, is whether this is “slavery”.

Are you familiar with how the collegiate athletics system works in the US? Are you familiar with the story of Ricky Williams, the wanna-be pot-smoking Buddhist? Are you aware of the numerous Argentinian / Brazilian football players denied the right to participate in the Beijing Olympics by their Italian football club employers? Slavery? Freedom? My comrade Phil is completely right on this issue.

June 24, 2008 @ 5:32 am | Comment

I appreciate the comment, Buxi. As mentioned, I came to my conclusions more based on conversations I’ve had with actual Chinese athletes. I know these things aren’t necessarily black and white. China’s system struck me as crueler and with fewer choices. I don’t see the corollary between the cruelty of the training system and the Argentina’s refusal to allow players to participate in a sport. That’s cruel, but I don’t see it in the same category of cruel. And, of course, if their system is cruel it doesn’t make China’s system any less so.

June 24, 2008 @ 6:04 am | Comment

Heaven forbid people actually have to work hard to make their fortune living in a poor country.

No one ever disparaged hard work. I think the key issues are pushing ahead although you may go blind, being brought up in a way that doesn’t let you fit back into society and with no safety net (and thus making the poor poorer), having freedoms restricted and living a life that I’ve heard described many times as agonizing and lonely. Other countries may be just as bad, but China happens to be the one I’ve learned about.

June 24, 2008 @ 6:10 am | Comment


As far as pushing ahead and going blind, we talked about the NBA player Alonzo Mourning. Here’s a guy who risked death just to keep playing basketball. Why? To keep his Nike sponsors happy? To keep his agent wealthy? To buy a bigger mansion? Whatever the reason, I don’t see it as being any more glorious than Hu risking his eyesight.

Having freedoms restricted and living a life that’s “agonizing and lonely” is cruel when it’s forced on them. *Choosing* to do so is just self-sacrifice that doesn’t deserve pity, only respect and understanding. And for children who are minors, in just about any society, their parents have the right to choose for them. That’s as true for a Chinese athlete as a home-schooled American ice skater denied a normal child-hood.


On a different note, we’ve talked before (when I was CCT). I believe you’re Spanish? Would like your opinion and feedback on the EU’s integration vis-a-vis the Chinese obsession with unification.

June 24, 2008 @ 7:23 am | Comment

They can quit anytime if they (or their parents) want, they just don’t get the pensions for people who honor the contract. How is that slavery?

Because when they’re young the parents are lied to or only see a short-term benefit. When the child becomes an adult he/she, as richard establishes, realises they can now ONLY do sport. They don’t have an education and qualifications to go through the education system, and no one will offer them a half-decent job without formal grades, work experience, etc.

They’re between a rock and a hard place.

June 24, 2008 @ 3:05 pm | Comment

“pointing out good or bad things a government does doesn;t mean you’re judging the country as good or bad”

It would be great if more people “got” this idea. A lot of people still haven’t quite figured out how to philosophically separate government from nation. Unfortunately, I also think that personal and political have somehow become so entangled that people tend to interpret criticism of larger issues as personal attacks and end up defending their opinions as if defending their own mother. Absurdity at its finest.

“I hope this kind of publicity will help prod the reform process along.”
I hope so too.

June 24, 2008 @ 10:44 pm | Comment

Cao Meng De

Why is it when I look in the mirror I see your beautiful face gazing back at me?

June 24, 2008 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

Actually, I can’t be bothered to work up the effort to write more than now. I will keep my comments short and pithy from here on out. By the way, the post above is not by me. I wish people wouldn’t imitate other posters.

June 25, 2008 @ 2:51 am | Comment

Busy with that skateboard aint ya.

June 25, 2008 @ 3:04 am | Comment


“As I asked before, do you think this is a good system?”

Probably not, in terms of good as in “feeling good”. But it enables the Chinese athletes to compete at the global level. That’s what counts. In this sense, yes.

Are sweat shops good? Fuck no, again in terms of “feeling good”. But they offer a way out of poverty, for those workers and the country, when there isn’t much more than their sweat that they possess to compete with in this global economy. That is what counts.

June 26, 2008 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

But there could be a way out of poverty without such a harsh and restrictive training system. It doesn’t have to be either dire poverty or have your life in effect taken away so that you might have a one in 10 million chance of becoming an athletic superstar, while knowing that most likely you’ll simply be discarded by the system and left to rot if you don’t win the medal. It shouldn’t be just those two options. You can train to be a great athlete and have a life. It is not unprecedented.

June 26, 2008 @ 11:02 pm | Comment

Since when did sport become a means of winning prestige for your country and not just simple, innocent, healthy fun?

The Olympic Games is an oxymoron. A GAME should be FUN; if it’s to be taken seriously, it shouldn’t be called a game anymore. Are the Olympic Games fun? Especially for the participants?

As for Cao Meng De’s adulation of the Spartans, where’s ancient Greece TODAY? Hardly a superpower. If the Spartans were such great fighters, why did Greece eventually get taken over by Rome?

June 27, 2008 @ 1:51 am | Comment


“But there could be a way out of poverty without such a harsh and restrictive training system.”

Sadly, I don’t think so.

Either you get touch and kick ass or get your ass kicked. In competitive sports, there’s no other way. Same reason many young lives get ruined by using steroids in America.

Same shit happens day in an day out all over the world. A pimple is a pimple. China has a big ass one, that’s why you see it.

I’m kind of glad for them because at least they can dream their dream of becoming a superstar and are able to act on it. In that sense, I don’t pity them. I respect them.

June 27, 2008 @ 5:21 am | Comment

It is not a matter of respect for the athlete. To even bring that up, as though pointing out the evils in the training system is in some way disrespectful to individual athletes, is very coy. It’s pretty obvious you’ve never spoken to one of those athletes you respect so much. I have major problems with the system precisely because I respect the athletes, and believe they should be treated with respect and as human beings. It’s pretty clear that if their coaches put nails in the athlete’s food you’d defend it because it makes the athletes “tough.”

June 27, 2008 @ 8:05 am | Comment

To Yoda,
For the benefit of the doubt, I assume you are a rocket scientist, with 17 years experience working as an engineer on a major guided missile program, so what? Does that make you a credible figure that is entitled to look down upon Cao Meng De? These days rocket scientists are no longer sought-after, those cool folks are flocking to hedge fund, astrophysics.I would be much impressed if you claim yourself as a former senior CIA operative.
A major guided missile program? Missiles to blow up other countries or missiles to protect yourself from retaliation when you blow up other countries? I’m sure you must be very proud of yourself.

June 29, 2008 @ 9:07 am | Comment

to K T Ong
Since when did sport become a means of winning prestige for your country and not just simple, innocent, healthy fun?
When sports become a business, it is no longer just innocent and fun.I believe you are not naive enough to not realize that.

The Olympic Games is an oxymoron. A GAME should be FUN; if it’s to be taken seriously, it shouldn’t be called a game anymore. Are the Olympic Games fun? Especially for the participants?
Representing your country to compete on a global arena, it is more a thing of pride than of fun, given the population on this planet is still divided into countries with sovereignty and tangible borders. If not, would it be kind of odd when you see medal winners become very emotional when their national flags are hoisted?

As for Cao Meng De’s adulation of the Spartans, where’s ancient Greece TODAY? Hardly a superpower. If the Spartans were such great fighters, why did Greece eventually get taken over by Rome?
Every superpower dies, even the mighty Rome. Spartans are admired for their girt and loyalty other than their conquest. I trust you know the story of King Leonidas of Sparta.

June 29, 2008 @ 9:44 am | Comment


I was by no means indicating you were being disrespectful.

Honestly, I was quite put off by these articles. They are dripping with cheap intention to stir up pity and rage. The same old theme of the evil dark force and poor used and abused athletes of China.

See, when you devote your life to achieving something great, there’s a good chance that you fall. Chinese athletes don’t enjoy as good of a cushion as their American counterparts do.

So where’s the wider context mentioned in these articles? Where’s the background story for the people to truly understand why so many Chinese athletes do what they do despite of all the hardship?

The authors seem to have avoided to promote an understanding, or maybe they just didn’t care. I’m sure most readers could care less either. Understanding? Who needs that? We just need things to strengthen what we already believe in!

July 3, 2008 @ 3:05 am | Comment

Hey Richard!

Wish I’d seen this earlier, but I’ll still comment for the record.

I personally met a young woman who had been in the Chinese Olympic training program until she was forced to drop out a few years ago because her young body had been worked to the point where she suffered physical damage and could no long compete. I got to know her story in very great detail.

Of the many awful conditions she described, one stands out. In her sport, EVERY SINGLE ATHLETE, male or female, was on a long-term regimen of drugs.

No one asked the athletes’ (or their parents’) permission, no one explained what they were being given. Night after night, they were simply told to go one by one to the coach’s room, where the syringes were lined up on the table, and got their injections.

She described the effects on their bodies. The males turned into muscled Apollos. Some of her girlfriends grew mustaches, their shoulders broadened, their voices deepened. There was little doubt as to what was going on, but there was no option. It was just part of the training. The young athletes (many of them teens) simply accepted it as they accepted everything else they were ordered to do.

Her story was really depressing. The relentless, grueling, inhuman training. The lack of attention to their educations. The secretive trips to East European destinations for additional drug injections. The regimented, cloistered lives they led in the sporting academy dormitories.

She mentioned how surprised they were that some American athletes in her sport were in their 30s. No Chinese athletes in her program ever made it that far. By their early twenties, their bodies were simply worn out.

Another weird detail that stuck in my memory: the Olympians had a wonderful cafeteria, and were free to eat anything they wanted. But they had no dietary guidance at all. She recalled one young female athlete who apparently lived on a diet of chicken wings.

Despite all this, the former athlete was not bitter. She regretted the lack of education, the drug dosing, and her training injury. Yet she still has an Olympian’s spirit, and truly loves her country. After being forced to drop out of the program, she managed to catch up on her education and eventually earned a college degree. A really remarkable and admirable young woman!

July 3, 2008 @ 4:36 pm | Comment

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July 3, 2008 @ 5:42 pm | Pingback

“Yet she still has an Olympian spirit, and truly loves her country.”

We all do, we truly love that country. And we all have that Olympic spirit, we really do. And we tell all those bastards who keep bragging about their health, their environment, their children’s lives and all those trifles, we really do, but those ungrateful bastards just won’t listen.

July 4, 2008 @ 7:14 am | Comment

I will probably get shot down for this, but as a Canadian who has lived and worked in China for man, many years, (since 1991, in fact), I have had both the privilege and sorrow to see a multitude of things inside and outside China.
Yes, I have seen people who have not had the opportunity to follow their own dreams… ON BOTH SIDES OF THE POLITICAL RHETORIC. Yes, I have seen people forced to work at jobs they have little or no chance to excel at… ON BOTH SIDES. Yes, I have seen hungry and homeless… (yup! again… on both sides). I have seen crime, punishment, control, errors, patriotism, humanitarianism, oppression, consideration, responsibility, freedom, success, failure… about every form of measurement modern society has… ON BOTH SIDES OF THE PACIFIC.
The one thing I have rarely seen is honesty and a willingness to admit failure… ON BOTH SIDES OF THE PACIFIC.
Sorry to those who stereotype people, civilizations, ethnic groups, governments and culture. I have no wish to offend anyone. My only wish is to be able to read a true opinion based upon fact, not fictional excuse, unethical gain, ill-educated beliefs or simply gross indecent racism. Simple, factual, educated and informed truth is my personal craving.
Best of luck to the sensationalists, the beaten, the ill-equipped who fail to comprehend due to laziness, pride or simple need to have someone hear their not-so-honest voice in a crowd.

August 13, 2008 @ 10:13 pm | Comment

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