When Li Na became the first Chinese player to make it to a tennis Grand Slam final at the Australian Open earlier this year, the State General Administration of Sports didn’t get many plaudits. Perhaps it should have: after all, Li had only been self-managed since 2008. But her success this year (WiC94) was talked about more in terms of her earlier decision to break away from the rigid confines of the state sports system (WiC14).
Where China’s Soviet-style training regimen does get more recognition, however, is in gymnastics, where it has proven itself a veritable medal factory.
Much of that is down to the success of a school in a small town in Hubei. Labelled ‘Gymnastics Town’ in the media, Xiantao’s track record is an impressive one, producing the winners of six gold medals, six silvers and a bronze over the last five Olympic Games.
The school is a key provincial entry point for the country’s future gymnastic elite, housing around 120 students, aged from just four through to nine, who trade much of their childhood for a chance of sporting success on the global stage. (Around 10 get selected for the provincial team each year, and from there the best talent joins the national team).
The importance of winning is clear from the start: “Don’t cry, be tough!” goes one of the school’s nursery rhymes. Another: “Sweat to become a hero and win the gold medal!” The programme first came about courtesy of a physical education teacher called Ding Xiapeng, who began coaching students at a local secondary school in 1954. Training was suspended for six years during the Cultural Revolution (‘representative of backward ideologies’, apparently) but Ding got things running again in 1972.
Ding’s big break came in 1980, the year he met a seven year-old who would become his most successful student: Li Xiaoshuang. Li so thrilled his compatriots by winning gymnastic gold in Barcelona in 1992, and again in Atlanta in 1996, that the province decided to commit to funding Ding’s programme in a standalone institute.
Sporting success can come at a cost, say critics, who charge that students failing to make the grade are let down by the limited wider education on offer at the school.
“In gymnastics school they only study Chinese, mathematics and Party ideology,” one mother complained to the Beijing News, “so there’s a large gap with the curriculum taught in ordinary schools and it’s difficult for them to catch up.”
But for the lucky few who become superstars, it’s a different story. In earlier days the perks were extra food and supplementary clothing rations, but recent years have led to cash bonuses, priority housing and jobs for relatives, says Sanlian Life Weekly magazine.
Expect Xiantao’s finest to dominate in London’s Olympiad too.
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