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'Their tears are payment for a championship'

Continued from Page 2

But athletics are still at the centre of the Games, and in China, as elsewhere in the world of sports, everyone loves a winner.

In 2000, at the Games it had hoped to host, China served notice that it was an athletic powerhouse in the making. It left Sydney with 28 golds, third overall and its best result since re-entering Olympic competition in 1984 after 36 years on the sidelines. Athens was enough of an improvement on Sydney that China can legitimately dream of winning the 40 or so gold medals it would take to come out on top in Beijing.

That's where athletes like Xue Jan come in. At 18, she is China's most promising female javelin thrower, and typical of her country's hopes: Women accounted for 38 of China's 63 medals in Athens, reflecting an official strategy to use women's sports - often under-funded and overlooked by other nations - to help the country work its way up the medal count.

China has used the same discerning eye to identify sports that aren't as competitive in general and ramp up in those too, That explains why it was able to take home medals in canoe-kayak and track cycling from Athens, even though it has little background in either event.

Like many of her peers, Xue has been training nearly full-time since she was eight. She was identified as having potential (tall, strong and the niece of an athlete) as a primary-school student, and left home to enroll in Nantong Sports School in Jiangsu province, south of Beijing.

If that was a sacrifice, she says she was glad to have made it. "I liked it in the dormitory of the school because I didn't want the control of my parents. I liked the freedom, I liked to control myself."

Her trip to Athens wasn't particularly fruitful - a back injury kept her from reaching the final - but she says the opportunity to have experienced the biggest sporting event in the world can only help. It has to, she points out, because four years from now, finishing out of the medals won't be so easily brushed off. "There is pressure," she says. "I do feel pressure because my coach has given me [a target] for 2008 and that's to be No. 1, 2 or 3 in the world. Gold is the goal, but silver or bronze is the minimum."

The pressure to perform is felt throughout the system. The team in Beijing will have been combed from a pool of roughly 260,000 children and young adults, almost all of them groomed in the broad network of sports schools like Shishahai. They provide the base for nearly 20,000 elite-level competitors who are housed (the United States can accommodate about 1,000 at any given time) at 195 training departments, spread across 21 provinces.

Only the most talented and dedicated make their way up through the various levels, and the regimen at a facility like Shishahai is an intense one. The day begins at 7 a.m. with 30 minutes of exercise and breakfast before classes, which run from 8 until noon. Then there is lunch, a nap and training for three hours in the afternoon, followed by showers, dinner and homework before lights-out at 10 p.m., with only weekends off.

It's a gruelling schedule, but it gets results. Five of China's 32 golds were won by Shishahai alumni in Athens. It's unlikely that any of the current students will be old enough to be on the podium in Beijing in four years, but some graduates surely will, and the current crop will have their chance to shine in 2012 and onwards.

Youth is the backbone of China's emerging Olympic dominance. The team it sent to Athens was its youngest in history, an average age of 23.3 (the average of Team USA, which won the medal count, was 27.1). And 80 per cent of them were Olympic rookies, like Xue, who were being seasoned for 2008.

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