Way back before most of you ever heard of this blog, I put up a post about an interview I had with a Chinese Olympic medal-winner, which you can find here. She talked to me about how difficult it was to train to be an athlete in China:
“Training in China is very different than in the US,” Chen Lu explained. “The skaters move away from their families and live with their team. We had to live in a dormitory year after year and we couldn’t see our parents very much. And there were so many pressures from the coaches, and from the government – it is not easy. It’s totally different from in the United States.”
I think all of us know what kind of pressures Chinese athletes are put under. A lot of my work in 2008 revolved around the Beijing Olympics, and I heard many stories about what a hard life it is. That may be why Chinese athletes in certain categories like diving and gymnastics do so splendidly. But is it humane, and is it fair? It seems now that more and more Chinese athletes are saying it isn’t.
Chinese athletes, once dutiful ambassadors who obediently spent their lives in pursuit of patriotic glory, are no longer willing to just grin and bear it. A series of recent controversies is shedding light on how young athletes are beginning to expose abuse, challenge exploitation and reject official interference in their careers — risky moves in a country where there is no separation of sport and state. Their struggle is a microcosm of the clash in contemporary China between the push for personal liberty and the grip of an authoritarian government….
“What’s happening now is the younger generation of athletes has so many options to communicate, through microblogs and social networking, that they want to stand up and speak out,” said Jiang Yi, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated China.
Yet athletes face a formidable opponent: the state-run sports system — a bureaucracy of training schools, teams and government organizations that selects and coaches more than 250,000 young people for the purpose of winning gold medals.
The system offers many athletes the chance to bring honor to their families and country through competition. But some of these athletes find that the Olympic rings become shackles that bind them for years in indentured servitude to a government that frequently neglects their scholastic education and ignores their injuries while taking a sizable cut of their earnings, all in the name of national pride.
It is a recipe that leaves many athletes unprepared to compete in the real world once they can no longer perform in a stadium. According to the state news media, 240,000 retired athletes suffer from injuries, poverty and unemployment.
Of course, the head of China’s basketball association puts the blame on the spoiled athletes, who don’t understand that a good thrashing is good for them. They only do it because they care.
“Coaches treat their players like their children, and it’s completely normal for parents to hit their kids,” Bai Xilin, the C.B.A.’s chairman of game operations, said in an interview.
Bai acknowledged that the old guard has trouble relating to younger players who have grown up in a more open and prosperous era. But he dismissed the players’ complaints as evidence of a generation gone spoiled. “Kids these days are unable to eat bitterness,” he said. “They want the results but they aren’t willing to endure the hard times.”
I’ve written before about the abuse Chinese athletes are subjected to. It’s a topic dear to my heart. Chinese athletes are in effect indentured servants, and the government owns them. They exist not because they are human beings but because they win medals, and once they stop winning medals they are tossed aside and left to cope for themselves, despite being robbed of their childhoods, despite having cultivated no other skills.
It brings to mind the athletes of the old Soviet Union and East Germany, pumped full of hormones (female athletes often looked like men), and then left to deal with the devastation wreaked on their bodies. I’m delighted to see this scandal getting the exposure it deserves.
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.