Monday, August 4, 2008

China's Elite Olympic Hothouses

Holly Williams, Sky News reporter
Ji Mingming is an angelic-faced 13-year-old with a penchant for pink T-shirts and at just under five feet tall, with a fashionable spiky haircut, she almost passes for an ordinary teenage girl.
Ji Mingming
Ji Mingming
Ji Mingming, 13, is in training for the 2016 Olympics

But look again because Ji is a muscle-bound powerhouse who can snatch 80 kilograms with the strain barely showing on her face.

At the Qingdao Sports School - one of China's 300 elite hothouses for future Olympic athletes - Ji spends six hours a day in the airless weight room, methodically lifting the barbell.

Alongside her other members of the female weightlifting squad train, all of them stocky young women with piston-like thighs and rock-hard biceps.

The squad does not get any summer break and only occasional visits from parents are permitted.

But Ji - selected like the other girls for her body's explosive power - clearly loves the sport.

She said: "Once I've won the gold medal all the suffering will be worth it."

If all goes to plan that will be in the 2016 Olympics.

Many of China's elite sports schools specialise in gymnastics, diving, table tennis and badminton - sports in which the country has a long-established record and fistfuls of Olympic gold to prove it.

But the Qingdao school focuses on sports in which China has little history - wrestling, judo, archery and shooting.

The foray into new sports began eight years ago when China was awarded the 2008 Olympics, former British Olympian and commentator Matthew Syed says. He argues that the push is "entirely political".

"It was when they started realising that medal winning delivered kudos that they went down that path," he said.

"Winning medals in competition is one way of restoring the self-esteem of the country."

And Qingdao judo coach Dong Jianqing says taking gold at the games is "propaganda for China and our place in the world, and very important for the common people.".

At the Beijing Olympics, many suspect that surpassing the US on the medal tally is China's unspoken goal but the government officially denies it.

China may one day challenge the US as a geopolitical power but it already rivals it as a sporting power.

The Qingdao school is part of that plan and, like many other elite sports schools, it is notable for its skewed sex ratio. Over 60% of the students are girls.

The reason for the focus on female athletes is simple: they are more likely to win gold.

Ji Mingming

Ji Mingming

Chairman Mao, who sent Chinese women into fields and factories to work side by side with men, once famously said "women hold up half the sky".

But 60 years later it is apparent that Mao Zedong may have underestimated China's women.

In Athens in 2004, female athletes won two thirds of China's gold medals. In Beijing this month, some of China's brightest hopes are again women.

They do not rival China's star gymnasts and ping-pongers for media attention but athletes like shooter Du Li - a favourite in the women's 10-metre air rifle - and judo's "super jumbo" Tong Wen are key to the country's Olympic hopes.

In eight years it will be Ji Mingming's turn. Until then she will keep pumping the weights, hoping one day she too will deliver gold for her country.

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