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In China, the Tale of the Tape Measure
For millions of Olympic hopefuls in China, the path to a gold medal begins with institutions such as Zhabei District Children's Sports School in Shanghai. A school of 700 K-12 students with state-of-the-art sports facilities and coaches who themselves were once elite athletes, it has produced three of China's past medal winners.
Four students from the Zhabei school will compete this month in swimming, table tennis and volleyball.
Many of the students were recommended by coaches or full-time recruiters that scour the country for talent. Others are enrolled by parents -- some motivated by ambition, others simply by an interest in exercise -- who pay a few hundred dollars a year in tuition.
Doctors at the sports schools take into account height, arm span, bone density, flexibility and other criteria and often predetermine a child's fate at an early age.
When he was younger, Wang Lei, now 14, loved to run. But a few years ago he was told by the school that with his long wingspan -- almost six feet -- he might do better at the javelin or shot put. So he switched.
The Zhabei school's headmaster, Jiang Guoan, said he makes sure his students understand that subjects such as reading and math are as important as sports. Some athletic schools require six hours of training each day, with only two left for academics, but Jiang said his school requires only 90 minutes of sports training per day. By the time the required academic classes are finished and the training is completed, there's little time left in the day for anything else.
"Although our final goal is to deliver good athletes for the Olympics -- there will be only very few top athletes" who will achieve this, Jiang said. "So we must do broader training. . . . Regardless of the profession, study must be the most important."
Even so, the athletic training is rigorous -- and sometimes harsh. On a recent weekday morning, Coach Shen Jianzhong had taken six of the most promising kindergarten-age swimmers aside from the rest of a group of more than 50.
Qu Liying, age 6, was one of those selected. Her mother had brought her to the school because she thought being active would be good for her daughter's health and was surprised to see how good she became at swimming under the school's direction.
"Too slow!" the coach yelled. "Not like that. Like this!"
When one of Qu's classmates failed to follow his instructions, Shen cupped his hands together and sent a wave of water into the girl's face.
Stories about athletes who dedicated their lives to sports but didn't make it are the reason why some promising athletes, such as Zhou Xinlei, 12, are turning down a chance to move to up China's sports pyramid.
Zhou, a sprinter who can run the 100-meter dash in less than 15 seconds with little training, was recommended for Shanghai Sports School, but she declined.
"My dad thinks as a primary school student my studies are still most important. . . . I don't want to go, either. I still prefer book studies. I feel athletic training is just for health," Zhou said.
As part of its strategy to increase its medal count, China has put a special emphasis on nurturing promising female athletes.
Wang, who is petite and thin, never had touched a barbell in her life before she was tested by the scout who steered her toward weightlifting. Wang weighs 117 pounds and can squat snatch 137 pounds and clean and jerk 172 pounds. She knows there still is a ways to go before she may be able to lift twice her weight like many of China's champions.
"Before I got into weightlifting, I used to do arts and learned sketching," Wang shrugged. "Maybe in the future I'll be a designer. Or something."
Researchers Crissie Ding and Wu Meng contributed to this report.