China may have finished second in the Olympic medal table at the Tokyo Olympics, but it wasn’t for lack of trying to be number one.
Being pipped by the US with 39 golds to 38 on the final weekend can’t have been easy for a country with a huge state-backed operation which puts young athletes through brutal training to prepare them for the world sporting stage.
It is that, plus the population of 1.4 billion, which propels the Chinese time and again to Olympic success.
Communist Party-backed sports officials ruthlessly select and train competitors from an early age – with children as young as four being enlisted to train for the team.
China’s demanding state sports system has attracted criticism – but has also made it one of the most successful Olympic nations since it returned to the games in 1980.
The Chinese system is rooted in the Soviet model, which saw sport as a way of attracting prestige for the Communist system.
Gou Zhongwen, director of China’s sports administration and head of the Chinese delegation, left no doubt about the country’s goals, saying on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics: “We must resolutely ensure we are first in gold medals.”
Scouts sent out in search of future athletes
The state sends out scouts to hunt for tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2000 government-run sports schools.
Tests for selection see kids being given challenges such as press-ups, endurance running and bench presses that prioritise overall strength over specific skills.
Many Chinese parents used to send their kids to sports schools, lured by government subsidies and promising-looking careers for their children.
It doesn’t matter if the sports have mass appeal or if the youngsters have interest – if they are deemed worthy, it is their duty to perform for the sake of the nation.
Kids as young as four begin training
Disturbing pictures show children as young as four being trained at a Chinese gymnastics school.
In one heartbreaking picture, a girl can be seen sobbing as she dangles from bars while a coach stands in front of her wielding a stick.
Another image shows a line of boys, most of them in tears, holding on to a bar at a gymnastics training centre.
At the Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School in there is little room for error, AFP reported.
They bow to their coaches in apology if they are not up to scratch, and a bad performance is punished with extra weight training at the end of a long day.
At night, they sleep in bunk beds – two sharing the top mattresses, two in the lower bunks, in dormitories.
Kids from poor backgrounds ‘adapt well to hardships’
Children are selected by methods such as those who can stack bullets on their hands chosen for archery, and girls with long arms sent to weightlifting.
“Children from rural areas or from families that are not so good economically, they adapt well to the hardships,” said one Chinese sporting official, reports The New York Times.
But academic teaching remains paltry and students are lucky to see their family a few times a year.
For those athletes who don’t succeed, a lack of education can mean life is hard.
Their young bodies are often damaged by such intensive training at such a tender age.
Gymnastic stars are known for starting at an incredibly early age but other sports, such as weightlifting, also put children through brutal regimes.
Another image shows a boy with his feet and head on two chairs while his body supports a huge weight, with his hands clasped over his face.
Focus on sports with ‘predictability’
Beijing has focused on less prominent sports that are underfunded in the West or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.
Women’s weightlifting, which became a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games, has become a focus for Beijing’s gold at all cost strategy.
One former national champion was so impoverished after retirement that she ended up working in a public bathhouse.
She grew a beard, which she said was the result of doping forced on her as a young athlete.
But this year’s champion Hou Zhihui, 24, who has trained six days a week since she was 12, secured glory for China.
“The only thing we athletes think about is focusing on training,” she said after winning gold.
China selects sports which rely on predictability and the individual to ensure the best chance of success – with the country never winning a gold in a team sport, aside from volleyball.
China’s ‘sour grapes’ accusation
Chinese state media last week hit back at reports of Beijing’s manufacturing of its athletes, bullishly boasting it showed “sour grapes” in the West and claiming the nation would “guard its leading position”.
However, the state-run Global Times, was left with egg on its face as the US pulled ahead in the final table.
“In relation to all the positive vibes of the Chinese athletes and the mature mentality of Chinese fans, a few Western media outlets chose to turn a blind eye,” it raged.
The final medal tally for the Olympics had the US in first place, followed by China, Japan, UK and ROC, with Australia in sixth place.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission