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Chinese Athletes Under Pressure

Posted by Author on August 15, 2007

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan, Aug. 15, 2007 –

This is the sixth and final installment of a series on the Beijing Olympics, which will kick off on Aug. 8, 2008. The Chinese Communist Party is putting China’s national prestige on the line as it prepares for the Summer Games, but it remains to be seen how well the country can perform in the Games.

During China’s National Championships held June 10 at the Shanghai International Gymnastic Center, female gymnast Wang Yan, 15–aspiring to compete at next year’s Olympic Games–suffered a spinal fracture after falling headfirst from the uneven bars, ending her Olympic dream.

A Beijing evening newspaper said Wang’s fall was the result of an attempt at an acrobatic move. Some parts of the Chinese media linked the accident to the pressure to win a spot on the national team for the Olympics.

Under the national training system, gifted Chinese athletes are picked by the state for special training while still very young.

The about 1,500 athletes who sit at the top of the athletic pyramid receive better-than-average salaries and housing from the government. Olympians are selected from this pool of elite athletes.

Those selected as national team members are expected to boost the country’s national prestige. In other words, they are hounded by the pressure of winning medals.

Xiong Ni, 33, vice director of the Hunan Provincial Bureau of Sports in Changsha, Hunan Province, said the bureau provides an opportunity for retired athletes to make good use of their experience.

“That’s why former athletes like me work for the bureau,” he said proudly.

Xiong was a gold medalist in the diving event at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Olympics. After retiring, he underwent a training program for elite athletes provided by the Chinese Communist Party, winning promotion to his present post at an unusually young age.

While Xiong’s abilities should be given credit for his promotion, his gold medals also had an effect.

The government is generous to those who can boost national prestige. However there are also cases in which athletes become expendable after they retire.

In spring last year, the postretirement life of former female national weightlifting champion Zou Chunlan, 35, became a hot topic for the media after a TV program showed her scrubbing grime from the skin of spa customers for a living.

Former marathon runner Ai Dongmei, who has won international competitions, was reported to be thinking about selling her medals because she could not make ends meet.

Former female badminton national team member Wang Chen, who now lives in Hong Kong, said that in China, coaches would openly express their displeasure when athletes lost. “I really hated it when that happened,” she said.

In 1999, Wang, 31, a native of Shanghai, went to Hong Kong to have an operation on her ankle, and has lived there ever since– freeing herself from the Chinese national training system.

At last year’s Asian Games, she beat Chinese representatives to win a gold medal. She will represent Hong Kong in the Beijing Olympics.

“Coaches in Hong Kong tell me to enjoy playing. In the past, badminton was the only life I had. Now, it’s only part of my life,” she said, smiling.

China won 32 gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics–second only to the United States–and the feat was considered a miraculous achievement.

But Beijing Olympic officials and coaches have said the medal harvest was an overachievement, and that it will be difficult for Chinese athletes to surpass the haul made at the 2004 Olympics.

At a press conference held Aug. 1, Cui Dalin, deputy director of the General Administration of Sport cautioned against high expectations, saying China is still among a group of sporting nations trailing behind the United States and Russia.

“We’re planning to aim for a high finish in the group,” he said.

However, his remark could possibly be interpreted as a strict order for Chinese athletes not to finish lower than third in the medal rankings.

One Chinese sports official said that if athletes who won gold medals at the Athens Olympics fail to repeat the feat at the Beijing Games, it would be tantamount to suicide. It was difficult to tell whether he was joking.

With one year to go before the Summer Games, the Chinese Olympians tasked with boosting their nation’s prestige must put their future on the line while fighting the pressure to win medals.

Original report from The Yomiuri

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