BEIJING China's plan to become the next Olympic superpower starts here, at Beijing Shishahai Sports School, in the heart of the nation's capital.The compact campus houses 555 students, some as young as five, who have been identified as having championship potential. Sent by their parents, they live in dormitories, four or six to a room, going home only on weekends.
With 10 sports featured at the school, all with their own physical requirements, each of the various training studios seems given over to different species: The tall and gawky pre-teen volleyball players, all arms and legs, look like spider-people while the weightlifters, with their broad torsos and short limbs, are their opposites. The gymnasts, who even at eight years old boast muscular shoulders and well-defined mid-sections, are like miniature super-heroes.
Shishahai is one of about 2,000 similar schools throughout China, established in the mid-1950s as a cost-efficient way to develop elite competitors, and they remain the backbone of China's sports system today.
Training sessions run for nearly three hours each afternoon, long enough that the coaches often pause for a smoke while their charges keep working. It's a tough regime, but training here is considered a privilege - the monthly fee is the equivalent of about $45 Canadian a month, not cheap when the average annual wage is $1,200 - and the students are focused.
"If you really want to be an athlete, you have to love it, and the parents have to love it, too, that's what makes it possible to send their kids here," says Liu Hong Bin, the Shishahai director. "As long as the parents love sports, they have the determination to send them here - as long as the children love sports school. Those are the basic conditions for success. We take care of everything else."
What they take care of is creating champions - 25 of the school's 3,000 alumni have won a world championship or an Olympic gold. But being the best requires sacrifice, and there are occasional reminders that what's going on here isn't play. There's the massive red and gold Chinese flag on the wall, for starters; and a coach hauling a youngster by the ear for a scolding ("If you don't want to train, I don't want to train you, either"); or tiny girl gymnasts exercising to the point where their faces screw up in pain and their eyes well over, sending tears tumbling.
No one blinks except a visitor. "Their tears are payment for a championship," Liu Jin Li, the girls' coach, says without apology. "It has to be strict. If the teacher is not strict, the children will not learn their lessons."
The payment is accepted, in part, because China has turned playing host to the summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 into a talisman with near magical powers to cure ills and change perceptions. After a troubled century or more, China is rebounding, returning to its rich past through a bright future, and the Games are viewed as a chance to get everything just right.
"During the 20th century, China experienced a very hard time," says Jin Yuanpu, executive director of the Humanistic Olympic Studies Centre at Renmin University of China. "We were invaded by foreign forces and even in our own country were held in low esteem.
"During these times there were signs: 'Chinese people and dogs are not admitted,' " he continues, referring to a placard that was said to stand at the entrance to a public garden in Shanghai at the turn of the century.
"And it's the wish of our forefathers that we stand strong among the nations of this world, that we don't live humbly, or under control of other nations, because of the suffering of the past . . ." Playing host to the Olympics "can be considered a rejuvenation of the greatness of the Chinese people," he says.