Thu, Jul 14, 2016 - Page 13 News List

‘Happy’ gymnastics

China looks to change its rigorous state-run athlete training program as attitudes change and career opportunities expand

By Didi Tang  /  AP, SHANGHAI

A young gymnast trains at the Xuhui Sports School in Shanghai, China.

Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP

In a room full of bright-colored cubes and giant mattresses, giggling children climb bars, try somersaults and walk gingerly on a low balance beam. Some stand on their hands, showing off their bellies under the guidance of four coaches.

It was pure fun for 8-year-old Lucy Huang, a chubby-cheeked, cheerful and talkative girl. Her parents have modest goals for her progress: they hope the lessons help her stay fit, improve her balance, and help brain development.

“I love it here because there’s lots of fun. I love doing flips forward and backward, and I like the rings,” she said in one breath while sitting on the balance beam, her legs dangling.

The scene in downtown Shanghai might be common in Western countries but is a rare sight in China, where the mere mention of gymnastics usually evokes stereotypical, decades-old images of little boys and girls tearfully practicing splits, living away from home under the watch of strict coaches, all for the chance at an Olympic gold.

This summer, Chinese athletes that primarily grew up in the decades-old state sports system are still expected to dazzle the world and scoop up dozens of medals when the Summer Games open in Rio de Janeiro. But at home, there are strong efforts to reform the system, which is struggling to recruit the next generation of stars despite its glorious record.

“The current system is to rally national resources to train a few to win the Olympic golds and win honors for the country,” said Xiong Xiaozheng, a retired sports professor in Beijing. “But this strategy no longer works with today’s society, and is losing its advantages.”

Without change, China’s spot among the world’s elite in sports is in danger.

STRICT TRAINING

Established in the 1950s, China’s state-led sports training system was tasked with rallying national pride. The poor, communist country was in need of international accolades, and bringing potential stars into one place was a cost-efficient way to train athletes.

For a long time, it worked. The system pushed China into top place in the gold medal hunt, peaking in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with 51 golds.

In the system, local governments scout out potential talent at very young ages, often in preschool. The children are separated from their families but corralled in state sports schools — overseen by sports authorities rather than education officials— to go through strict training programs for the sole purpose of winning world titles or Olympic golds.

The young athletes must go through rounds of elimination as they advance to the city team, the provincial team and eventually the national team. They must reach the top of the podium at the Olympics, or are considered failures.

“The path is extremely narrow,” recalled Cheng Liang, a former national all-around champion in artistic gymnastics. Because of injuries, he dropped out before the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Less than one percent of athletes reach the apex and are generously rewarded with fame and cash. They become household names, or even national heroes, with glowing reports published in state media. Those who fall off the path often find themselves tossed back into a bewildering society with inadequate academic preparations or social skills.

“Training is always the top priority, instead of school,” Cheng said.

Chinese families, especially poor rural households, were willing to send their children to the all-expenses-paid sports schools, and young athletes eliminated usually were able to find jobs in a state-planned economy.

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