China's gold forged from grassroots ambition

XIANTAO, China (Reuters) - China’s medals triumph at the Beijing Olympics has brought glory for this small city in farm heartland, where national sports success has been nurtured through family ambition and local government drive.

Silver medallist Yang Wei of China holds his medal during the medal ceremony for the artistic gymnastics men's rings final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 18, 2008. REUTERS/Hans Deryk

So far at the Games, athletes from Xiantao in central Hubei province have won three gold medals, a proud feat for this city of 300,000 surrounded by rice paddies and fish ponds.

“When Yang Wei won his gold medal, there were fireworks and crying and shouting everywhere, like he was our own son,” truck driver Yan Yunhong said of the local boy who won the prized all-around competition in gymnastics.

Yang also won a team gold, and Xiantao’s other winner was 20-year-old weightlifter Liao Hui, who grew up on its rural outskirts. In past Games, its gymnasts won four gold medals, most famously Li Xiaoshuang, who in the 1990s stamped China’s ascendancy in men’s gymnastics.

While extraordinary, the success of Xiantao, 1,100 kilometers (684 miles) southwest of Beijng, also typifies how China hauled itself to the top of the Olympic medal table.

The central government has poured billions into making champions. But finding and nurturing potential winners falls first on small places such as Xiantao, where parents’ ambitions and coaches’ and officials’ hopes for hometown glory place tiny athletes under intense training and expectations.

“You can have as much money as you like, but in the end it depends on finding the right kids and training them right -- and that’s what we do,” said Yang Wei’s first coach, Peng Youping, a rasping chain-smoker with a bull-like torso.

“What you need is this,” he said, punching his chest. “Toughness and discipline, not technology.”


The Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School where Peng teaches is the engine room of Xiantao’s plan to be a sports power.

The gym and classrooms for its 130 children are spartan and frayed. But even at the end of summer break, children sweated in the gym, twisting into shapes that would break adults’ backs.

Peng and others said their success drew on a tradition of stringent coaching formed under legendary gym trainer Ding Xiapeng, who found Li Xiaoshuang.

“Our traditional culture teaches people to endure hardship for their family and the nation and the Communist Party also teaches people the importance of sacrifice,” said school coach Zheng Shunsheng, who studied under Ding.

“The government organises sports here, but it’s the people who have to eat suffering.”

The other side of this bargain are the families willing to send children away for a tough, sometimes lonely and certainly distant shot at a medal.

On Thursday, Peng tested and prodded a queue of four- and five-year-old boys whose parents hope he will train them for the next few years.

At over 8,000 yuan ($1,170) a year, fees at the school are not cheap for parents often struggling as migrant or blue-collar workers. But those lining up said sports success could bring honor and income otherwise out of their children’s grasp.

“He’s a naughty kid with too much energy. Gymnastics could be his way to success,” one mother, Yang Hui, said of her fidgeting five-year-old.

But Peng was not sure. “He’s not ideal,” he said, pressing and stretching Yang’s gangly boy. “I’d have to think very hard before letting him study here.”


The rewards that come to the few who succeed are also on show in Xiantao. The local government has built “champion’s villas” for Olympic winners, who can also expect big bonus payments, political office and business opportunities.

China’s local governments compete among themselves for sports funds and prestige, and not always for the good of the national effort, said Susan Brownell of the University of Missouri in St. Louis, who studies China’s sports culture.

“In China, it’s always been more decentralized than East Germany or the Soviet Union was,” said Brownell. “The backbone here is the provincial and municipal teams.”

The patchwork nature of sports recruitment is part of the reason why China’s success has not extended to swimming and the running track, said Brownell. “It’s not as unified as you’d think.”

Officials in Xiantao said they aim to fill some of that gap. Tian Hua, a deputy head of the city sports administration, recited plans to upgrade gymnastics facilities and redouble efforts in diving, weightlifting and other promising sports.

His comments were interrupted by a call from a mother begging to get her eight-year-old daughter into the gymnastics school.

“Sorry, eight is too late,” Tian told her. “They’ve got to start by five or they’re already too far behind.”

Editing by Steve Ginsburg