When Frenchman Christian Bauer saw the Chinese fencing team he was hired to train for the Olympics the first thing he did was to send them all home.
“They were washed out through over-training and every one of them was carrying an injury,” he said. “So I gave them a vacation.”
The move upset Chinese sports officials, who summoned Bauer for a dressing down. After that, they watched his every move in the training gym under a banner that reads “Love your pain.”
Only when Bauer’s fencers swept all before them at the Asian Games in Doha in December 2006 was he left alone to train the team as he wished.
Bauer’s situation illustrates concerns among some top officials that over-training by Chinese coaches may be doing more harm than good to China’s Olympic medal hopes at the Aug. 8-Aug. 24 Games.
The sports ministry has gone so far as to urge coaches to sign contracts that commit them not to push their athletes too far.
And the chief medical officer of the China Olympic Committee, Li Guoping, recently acknowledged in an interview that some coaches lacked an understanding of the basic science behind training.
Tom Maher, the Australian coach of China’s women’s basketball team, said that the Chinese work far harder than any other athletes he had ever seen.
“The logic here is: if two hours training is good, four must be better. If you can do eight hours, then 12 is better still,” said Maher, who was appointed in 2005.
He said that he had to put an end to training practices that were damaging his players.
“Going on 10,000m training runs doesn’t make you a better basketball player, probably the opposite,” he said.
Because they are forced from age seven, when they are recruited by sports schools, to engage in long distance running, many players are physically ruined for basketball when very young, he said.
Foreign coaches and athletes first began to take notice of China’s coaching regimen in the early 1990s when Ma Junren and his women distance runners began to rewrite the world record books.
Ma is best remembered for leading his young runners on brutal marathon-a-day high-altitude training sessions in the Tibetan foothills.
Those training methods live on today in the shape of runners like Zhou Chunxiu, 29, probably China’s strongest gold medal hope in track and field at the Beijing Games after Liu Xiang, the men’s 110m hurdles champion.
Zhou won the London marathon last year.