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In China, the Tale of the Tape Measure

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The Washington Post's Ariana Eunjung Cha takes a look at the childhood training that has made China a very competitive country in the Olympics in just the last few decades. Video by Video and Audio by Ariana Eunjung Cha/The Washington Post, Edited by Anna Uhls/washingtonpost.com

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2008

SHANGHAI -- Wang Xiaowen was in the fifth grade when a government athletics scout came to her school and took a tape measure to her arms and shoulders. Something about the way she was growing must have been interesting, because within days he came back with some news.

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Wang had been identified as having great potential in an Olympic sport. And it wasn't just any sport, but one in which China had dominated globally over the past few years: women's weightlifting.

"I was a little terrified," Wang said.

Wang had played some basketball, but considered herself more of a nerd. Her favorite subject was math and she loved to draw. "I didn't have a great understanding of the sport," she said.

Now 16 years old, Wang attends Shanghai Sports School, one of China's elite state-run athletic training academies, where she spends between two and five hours each day training in the hopes that she will live up to the scout's hopes.

Disciples-in-the-waiting like Wang are the secret to China's success in the Olympics in recent years.

Modeled after those in the former Soviet Union, China's sports schools aim to train, push and discipline more than 250,000 pupils into superstar athletes. They have produced nearly all of the Chinese Olympians who will compete this month.

While the schools' success at producing world-class competitors is unquestioned, their methods have made some foreign coaches and athletes uncomfortable. Derided as medal factories, even some Chinese analysts say there's too much pressure to win. They say many of the schools churn out little robots rather than athletes who are in love with their sport. Those who don't perform well often are retired by age 15 or 16 and have trouble making the transition to a non-sports school where the emphasis on academics is stronger.

China's system of sports schools is "very good at finding sports talents," said Wu Yigang, a professor at the Shanghai University of Sport. "It meets the demand of our nation to make achievements in a very short time."

On the other hand, Wu said: "The Chinese way of training is problematic. These schools emphasize only training and neglect everything else. . . . It greatly affects children's knowledge and their moral outlook."

Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who is spending the year researching China and the Olympics at Beijing Sport University, said the country's sports school system is an inevitable consequence of the communist state.

"Sports clubs are part of grass-roots democracy in the U.S. This structure simply does not exist in China at the moment," Brownell said. "I think without government support there will not be high-level sports in China today."


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