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.