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.
China originally hoped to hold the 2000 Games, which were awarded to Sydney in a 1993 vote. Coming only a few years after the events at Tiananmen Square, China's human-rights record was considered in some quarters the main reason it lost the bid by two votes, although Australian bid officials' bribery of International Olympic Committee members, it came out later, may have had something to do with it. In any case, the official Chinese response, in an editorial published in the China Daily, made clear the snub was seen as simply one more in a century of "brutal colonialist aggression and exploitation." In a swoop, it lumped the lost bid in with other black moments in China's recent history, such as its commercial exploitation at the hands of Western powers at the turn of the century; the Japanese occupation in the 1930s; and the long period of diplomatic and economic isolation that followed the Communists' rise to power in 1949.
China regrouped and tried again. It was convinced that playing host to the Games would not only further the reforms that began 25 years ago, but also provide a stage for its newly confident self.
"I think that some media or individual groups depict a wrong picture of China," says Zhang Haifeng, deputy director of communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG). "For example, some people think that China's development will pose a threat to the world, the so-called 'China threat theory,' and some people think there has been no progress in China in human rights, or whatever, and all this is not true. I think that some media and or individual groups depict a wrong picture, so we hope that the Olympics will provide the opportunity to have a true understanding of China."
And the evidence suggests that unlike most Olympic host countries, where holding a multibillion-dollar extravaganza (China is reportedly spending $38-billion) is often greeted with public ambivalence if not hostility, the official outlook is actually widely represented.
"I absolutely support the Olympics in Beijing," says Zhao Yan, a 28-year-old software engineer. "Beijing's international status will be better and it is an opportunity to show China to the world."
Public support in China for the Games ran as high as 96 per cent, according to a reputedly independent poll taken by the IOC during the bid process. When news came in July of 2001 that Beijing's bid had won over four other cities, including Toronto, millions took to the streets to celebrate. This past summer, when the Olympic torch relay passed through Beijing, an estimated two million residents came out to catch a glimpse of the flickering symbol. Housewives and cabbies can tell you China won 32 gold medals in Athens, its best Olympic showing and trailing only the 35 won by the United States.
Part of the support likely stems from high expectations for the practical improvements that are expected to come because of the Games. The very air Beijingers breathe - a yellowish, toxic sludge on its worst days, this being one of world's most polluted cities - is supposed to improve. The bid for 2008 included a pledge to make Beijing a greener city, and authorities have undertaken an ambitious tree-planting program, set new emissions targets and are cracking down on companies that flout environmental standards.
Playing host to the Games has also prompted a number of infrastructure projects, including plans to triple the length of Beijing's expressway system and build five new subway lines - of prime interest in a city where traffic is always in some degree of snarl.
There's also a sense that the activity leading up to the Games will help sustain China's robust economic growth. In addition to the flurry of construction and investment, BOCOG's $2-billion operating budget is expected to be covered and then some by a fully subscribed marketing program, with multinationals like Coke, General Electric and McDonalds having paid as much as $175-million to be Olympic sponsors for the next four years, a 30-per-cent increase over the past Olympic cycle.
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.
It's a system that has caught the attention of the United States, accustomed to contending only with Russia for top medal honours. "I think that for a centralized nation like China, sports is one of the ways they can show the strength of their culture to the world," says Jim Page, who travelled to Beijing this summer in his role as managing director of games performance at the United States Olympic Committee.
"China is a very active sports society and an emerging society, not just in sports but in economics, and they perceive that it's their destiny to be one of the best, if not the best in the world.
"They're very competitive, they're very capitalistic and they're very driven to show the strength of their society, and sport is the way they're doing it right now."
There's some irony that one of the world's oldest and most sophisticated cultures has put so much emphasis on an event with which it has had such an uneven relationship. China didn't participate in the Olympics until 1932, when it sent a single sprinter to Los Angeles. After the People's Republic was founded, mainland China sent a team to the 1952 Summer Games, but sat out the Games thereafter as the IOC continued to recognize a team from Taiwan, before returning in 1984.
But there is an expectation here that the 2008 Games will prove that China has overcome its recent struggles and is on its way back to its status as one of the world's great nations.
"Chinese people have changed a lot, and we want to show the world our new image," says Jin Yuanpu, director of the Olympic Studies Centre. "We have strong personalities and good self-esteem and we want to participate in world affairs. The Olympics gives the West a chance to see the new China the way China really is. The world gives us 17 days, we give the world 5,000 years."
In that context, it's fitting that the clock counting down to the start of the opening ceremonies in four years' time stands at the top of the steps leading to the Museum of Chinese History, overlooking Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing.
A nation's future leading to its past.
China's medal count
Rank: Third in gold, third overall
Rank: Second in gold, third overall
BEIJING 2008 (projected)
Whenever an authoritarian state beings making big strides in Olympic sports, questions arise over whether a systemic doping program may be behind it. And China has had its share of doping scandals since returning to Olympic competition in 1984.
In their early 1990s, China's female distance runners came from nowhere to rewrite the record book while drinking turtle's blood and taking other traditional Chinese medicines. Their rivals accused them of taking steroids. A Chinese swimmer was stopped at Australian customs for having vials of human growth hormone in her luggage in 1998. Two weeks before the 2000 Sydney Games, China kicked 27 athletes off its national teams, reportedly for doping infractions.
There's always the possibility individual coaches and athletes will break the rules, perhaps motivated by the considerable financial incentives China doles out the Olympic medal winners. But there's a belief that the potential embarrassment of being outed as dope cheats has inspired a fairly robust and internationally respected anti-doping program in the build-up for Beijing in 2008.
"They haven't had any positive tests lately," says Jim Page, managing director of games performance for the United States Olympic Committee
"The didn't in Athens and they've taken some pretty dramatic steps lately to improve their testing and I believe, at the very highest level of sport, they're trying to do it the right way.