Tue, Aug 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Young girl becomes slaveto the Olympic spirit

Doctors fear that the extraordinary training eight-year-old Huimin has done to fulfil her father's dreams for the Beijing Games risks destroying her body

By Lindsey Hilsum  /  THE OBSERVER , XIANNING, CHINA

Through the wind, rain and sweltering heat, through the dingy towns of central China, a little girl in shorts and T-shirt is running.

She's been on the road since July 3, when she set off from her home in Hainan, heading for Beijing, 3,558km away. Her aim is to reach the Great Wall.

Pinned to her chest and back, like a competitor's bib, is a yellow cloth with red characters reading: "Olympic Spirit, Strong Body, Extreme Challenge, Honor for the Nation."

Eight-year-old Zhang Huimin (張惠敏) is the most extreme example of the fervor for sporting success sweeping China a year before the Beijing Olympics, which will start on the auspicious date of 08/08/08. At 20kg -- the weight of a packed suitcase -- and standing only 1.25m tall, she looks tiny and fragile.

For some she represents the Olympic spirit of determination to achieve against all odds; but for others, a kind of mania which may end in disaster.

Huimin had been preparing for more than a year. She got up every day at 2:30am and ran through the dark, deserted streets of her home town, Lingao, completing a half-marathon before dawn.

Then she went to school, had a nap after lunch, did her homework in the scruffy yard where her father raises fish for sale, and trained with makeshift weights before going to bed at 9pm.

While she ran, her father, Zhang Jianmin (張建民), cycled beside her. A frustrated athlete himself, he has poured all his ambition into his exceptional but vulnerable daughter.

"Her training may be too harsh for others, but she's used to it," he said. "No matter what science says, as long as it suits her, it's a good scheme. All theory must be based on practice."

Certainly she seems happy. She leaps and laughs as she runs, apparently tireless. As dawn breaks, after three hours with scarcely a break, she doesn't even have to catch her breath.

"My favorite things are running and boxing. Daddy says running is good for my health. If I know boxing, I can beat up those trying to bully me," she said, while hanging one of her marathon medals around the neck of her teddy bear.

Huimin's ambition is to win a gold medal in the 2016 Olympics, the first for which she would be old enough to qualify.

But Hong Kong-based sports doctor Patrick Yung (容樹恆), who is affiliated to the International Federation of Sports Medicine and the Hong Kong Sports Institute, worries that she will burn out -- or worse -- long before that.

"When you start to train as a kid, the problem will be overuse injuries that can affect the musculo-skeletal system, like bone, soft tissue, ligaments and muscles," he said.

As she is still growing, he worries that her growth plates will be affected and she could even end up with one leg longer than the other.

"When she gets to 10 or 11, she should start to menstruate, but long-term intensive training will affect her menarche, so that will be an immediate problem in two or three years' time," Yung said.

Her father says he is doing all he can to keep her healthy.

"If injuries occur, we'll have to accept it. Walking on the street could get you into an accident. It's all fate," he said.

This combination of fatalism, determination and unconventional science is also found in the Chinese Olympic team itself.

Zhou Chunxiu (周春秀), who won the this year's women's London Marathon, trains in Dalian, alongside other Olympic hopefuls. The 26-year-old's schedule is punishing. In the three months leading up to a major race she runs more than 200km a week.

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