BEIJING (Reuters) - All but a handful of China’s 396 Olympians competing in London have qualified for the Games under the patronage of the country’s monolithic Soviet-style sports system.
Many will have been identified as potential elite athletes from a very young age by scouts and directed into special schools to train in sports assumed to match their physical attributes and aerobic results.
Most could share tales of childhoods sacrificed to grueling training regimes in elite institutes often thousands of miles away from their home-towns and with little prospect of seeing their families more than once or twice a year.
A high-flying graduate of the regime, former world champion gymnast Fan Ye experienced the highs and lows of China’s “juguo tizhi” - literally ‘whole nation system’ - starting from her entry into a sports kindergarten at the age of six to her retirement at 20 in 2008, when she missed out on qualifying for her second Games at Beijing.
The system launched Fan to a world balance beam title in 2003 and took her to the Athens Olympics, and for a time she was known as ‘China’s Khorkina’, in reference to the Russian great Svetlana Khorkina who retired in 2004 with two Olympic gold medals and three all-around world titles.
The system also pocketed the lion’s share of Fan’s financial rewards and promptly dumped her from the national team’s set-up when her chances of winning gold began to diminish.
The punishing training and dieting also delayed her physical maturity for years.
Despite looser regulation and the development of professional sports leagues in China in recent decades, the regime remains as entrenched as ever and officials credit it with lifting the country to the top of the Olympic medals table with 51 golds at the Beijing Games.
Critics call it a waste of money in a country where tens of millions remain mired in poverty, however, and say it only benefits a handful of athletes at the top of the tree.
It has also been blamed for fuelling more unsavory aspects of top-level sport, including doping, age-faking and corruption, while bringing the country major success in only a handful of disciplines like diving, gymnastics and table tennis.
Now a graduate of one of China’s top universities, Fan, who has worked as a journalist, events host and gymnastics referee since her retirement, is not among the critics. She told Reuters she has few regrets about giving up her childhood to become ‘state property’.
But she voiced concern for the thousands of Chinese athletes who made the same sacrifice, but lacked the good fortune to be among the absolute best and finished their careers ill-equipped to compete away from the gymnasium.
Fan grew up in Baoding, a mid-sized city near Beijing, to parents who were both doctors.
Unlike many Chinese athletes, her entry into the sports regime was neither planned by her parents nor inspired by talent-spotting scouts, but was instead a result of her wild behavior as a young child.
“Before I was accepted to a sports kindergarten, I had been declined by three regular ones because I was too naughty,” Fan said.
”I spent age 6-7 at the sports kindergarten. They measured my height and shoulder width when I enrolled and because I was short and slim and had light bones, the teacher had me train in gymnastics. But my parents did not know I practiced competitively until much later. They thought I was doing some stretching exercises.
”At the kindergarten, kids only trained in their free time. Only after the teachers thought you had promise would they cut your class time and increase your training.
”After leaving kindergarten, I spent a year in a regular school and then left for (Hebei provincial capital) Shijiazhuang for professional training when I was eight with a province-level team run by Hebei’s sports bureau.
“Starting from the second year, I would have my own salary.”
After seeing the intensity of Fan’s training at Shijiazhuang, her mother told one of her coaches that she regretted putting her daughter into the sports kindergarten.
The coach responded: “Do you think she’s only your daughter? She’s the state property now!”
Fan said: ”I carried this ‘state property’ concept with me all the way to the national team. I thought it was good because you had no other choice but to train hard.
”I began to control my weight from a very young age, and I did not menstruate until I was 20, the year I entered Peking University.
”Our bodies matured very late because we were training so hard and often those in their adolescence had no female features at all. Many aged 18 or 19 still looked like small kids. But we did not take any drugs (to delay maturing).
”Until I entered the national team, I was not allowed to have meat and rice. Fish was fine, though. Once I was on the team, I began to eat protein powder. I remember we could only drink by the mouthful, and we were all clear about how much weight we could gain from a mouthful of water, like 100 grams. We would weigh ourselves everyday.
“Now I am 1.59 meters tall and weigh 46 kg. I went through a period when I quickly gained weight after retiring from the team, like all other gymnasts. I would not wear short skirts in the summer because my muscles still appeared obvious and not pretty.”
”When I won the 2003 world title, the state rewarded me with 80,000 yuan ($12,600). Later, (telecommunications company) China Mobile invited me to shoot an advertisement for them and paid me 360,000 yuan.
”That was only 15 percent of the money they paid the national team, who took 85 percent from the contract.
”China Mobile also signed the contract with the team, not me.
”When I won a gold in the national championship in 2005, Hebei rewarded me more than 400,000 yuan. Previously, they would reward homes. My parents used the Olympic money to buy a home and rent it out.
”Though my family was okay (financially) to begin with, the money changed our lives quite a lot. So, it would mean much more for poor kids, and for the many who practice gymnastics with the goal of winning money.
“As for that national championship reward, I was supposed to get 900,000 yuan, but I only got half. I am not sure if someone took my money - and I don’t want to think about it. Our training was paid by the state anyway, so we have to accept it.”
Fan enjoyed the perks afforded Chinese athletes who succeed on the world stage but knew her time was up after she failed to make the team for the Beijing Games.
”Before I won the (world title) in 2003, my goal was to get a gold and then retire to study. But after I won it, they treated me extremely well - they sent me a masseur and a nutritionist - and they were too good to turn down. I felt I could not let them down.
”Our retirement is also decided by the nation. Once you show a decline in ability and no hope of obtaining gold, they would reduce the intensity of your training, and gradually, you retire.
”Once we’re retired from the national team, we have nothing to do with it and nobody will help us arrange our future.
”For gymnasts, if you’re not a world champion, you have no chance to get into universities like Peking. It was I that found some teachers at Peking and asked the national team to write me a recommendation.
“The worst thing would have been to not to have any school to go to, especially when you have lost the ability to study from being away from the classroom for so long.”
As a former national sports hero and an university graduate, Fan faces a bright future and retired without debilitating injuries. Others were not so lucky.
Her former team mate, Nai Ruoyu, was set to qualify for the Beijing Games, but was forced to retire in the lead-up because of osteonecrosis in her femur head, the top part of the thigh bone that locks into the hip. Osteonecrosis is a disease in which bones collapse from a loss of blood supply.
”(Nai) left with no achievements. Athletes like her are just too many.
”In retrospect, I don’t feel regret because I won the world championship. Apart from the material rewards, I learnt so much, like thinking about the big picture and not just about myself.
”If you’re injured in competition, you need to keep going, not drop off. We were taught we were contending for the country, not just for ourselves.
”I also became mentally strong. After we came only seventh in the team event at the Athens Games, many people disgraced us, asking how we still had the face to come back home. After that kind of public pressure, what else can you not handle?
“The state-directed system is good for the country. But how about the rest of the athletes? If they select six out of 2000, and those six make it to the Olympics, that’s good for the country, but what happens to the rest of them?”
($1 = 6.3659 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Ossian Shine and Sonya Hepinstall