Changing China

Giant on the move

Are we taking things too far in this pursuit of excellence?

August 15, 2008

Synchronised divingCitius, Altius, Fortius or Faster, Higher, Stronger goes the Olympic motto, but is world sport pushing things a bit too hard?

I’m talking about the way young children are chosen at an early age and groomed for success, often at the expense of their childhood and their education.

In the West, it is often parents who drive their children to achieve what they could not, and there are plenty of burnout stories in sports like tennis to prove the point.

In China, it is the state which selects children at a young age in its relentless pursuit of Olympic success.

Australia’s Briony Cole, who win silver in the women’s 10m synchronised diving, talked of how the Chinese dominance of the sport had created a mentality of China against the Rest of the World among the athletes, and how hard it was to compete.

“They start when they are five … and that’s all they do, they just dive, dive, dive, it’s so different to what we do in Australia,” she said at a news conference this week.

I watched the diving, and frankly it showed. The Chinese pair, Chen Ruolin and Wang Xin, look like winners from their first dive. Afterwards I discovered that Chen was just 15, and Wang turned 16 the day before the final — but was not allowed to celebrate her birthday by her disciplined team.

What’s more Wang was not even allowed to compete under her real name, Wang Ruoxue, because her coach thought it sounded too delicate. Arguably her whole identity had been taken for the greater glory of the team and nation.

There are plenty more examples, among the 23,000 athletes in China’s state-supported system.

For the athletes like Chen and Wang, success will bring fame and relative wealth, but the fate of those who fall by the wayside has been the focus of some criticism in China, as my colleague Liu Zhen wrote in July.

Dong Jiong, Atlanta Olympic badminton silver medallist champions, has said a high percentage of athletes are left without education or sufficient literacy and social skills.

Chinese authorities, it should be said, are addressing the problem and they do provide education in their sports schools.

And it is worth repeating that this is not just about China. This is happening more and more all over the world; the Chinese just happen to be the among the best and most determined to groom their athletes for success.

But is it fair on the children?

PHOTO: Wang Xin and Chen Ruolin of China compete in the women’s synchronised 10m platform diving competition at the National Aquatics Center during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 12, 2008. REUTERS/Shaun Best


Actually I think China is an exception to the rest of the world here – it really is a communist thing. I am sure North Korea (sorry DPRK) do the same.

The same certainly happened in the Soviet Union, East Germany, Romania etc in the past – with some horrific results for many people and gold for some.

Of course in free societies the state can’t go into a classroom and pick out a kid, take them away at five years old to begin training for a gold medal 10, 14 years down the road.

If China ever becomes a fully free society then this sort of practice will probably dissolve – as it has done in Eastern Europe.

Posted by Simon Evans | Report as abusive

Winners celebrate, losers whine, they took anything, true or untrue, saw or imagined, to be their excuses. We forgive you.

Posted by dw | Report as abusive

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