Sport

Taking a dive

The Chinese are worried that their divers have lost their spring

Taking a dive: Guo Jingjing wins again at the World Championships

When it comes to diving, the Chinese expect close to perfection.

Last year in the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese diving squad dominated, capturing all but one of the eight golds on offer. Or one better than Athens, where they won six out of eight.

Imagine then the consternation when defending Olympic champions Chen Roulin and Kang Li were edged out by Mexico’s Paola Espinosa at the World Championships in Rome two weeks ago.

Espinosa’s surprise win quickly brought strong reaction at home. The Qianjiang Evening News referred to “the shattered Dream Team,” blaming the team’s complacent attitude. “So arrogant,” whispered the Beijing Evening News.

But Zhou Jihong, head coach of China’s national diving team, was unfazed: “Not every competition is perfect. I’m still pleased with the overall result. You can’t expect all 15 athletes to be at the top of their game in every competition.”

The training methods for Chinese divers are on the country’s rather lengthy list of state secrets. But they are rumoured to include weekly psychological assessments to counter stress.

Just as well. Team members are recruited early — some as young as six — before they can develop a fear of heights and so that their bodies can be more easily moulded. Once they enter the national sport system, they are treated as public goods, tasked with realising the nation’s ambitions.

Get it wrong too often, and expect exile. Diver Tian Liang knows what it’s like to be cast out of the system. After winning gold in Athens, he was publicly chastised for participating in commercial activities without prior approval.

But headstrong Tian showed no remorse for his infractions, and was quickly kicked off the national team. He tried to reinvent himself as an actor, but most of his erstwhile fans chose to boycott his movies, claiming he was “too self-centred, materialistic”.

Tian should take a cue from fellow teammate, Guo Jingjing – who has won more gold medals than any other female diver.

Guo was also accused of cashing in on her celebrity status but saved her place in the team by publicly apologising: “I did not realise I attended too many commercial events after the Athens Olympic games, and did not act according to the leaders’ instructions. I belong to the country and will be protected by the country.”

Her repentance did not go unnoticed – and the commercial contracts came through after all. As China’s most celebrated female athlete, she is endorsing everything from McDonalds to Toshiba.

There are now rumours that the 28-year-old Guo may be considering retirement, especially as the gossips are linking her romantically to Kenneth Fok, grandson of Hong Kong tycoon Henry Fok. Denying the rumour, the four-time Olympic Champion said she would not quit: “I never thought of retiring after the National Games. I will continue as long as I can keep in good shape.”


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