In 1984, Xu Haifeng became the first person from China ever to win an Olympic Gold Medal. He won in the 50 metre pistol. Immediately he was a national hero and remains in the record books. The triumph in Los Angeles was a long distance from his home town in Fujian province where he started training by shooting birds for food with a slingshot.
For the past 28 years, there has been an intense dedication to Olympic sports in China. This has Olympic expert Luciano Barra predicting China will take as many as 100 medals this summer in London. And Xu Haifeng hopes to return to the winner’s podium.
The Olympics machine in China is a well-calibrated beast. Coaches scour the vast nation looking for talent from a very early age. Qiu Bo is tipped to take as many as 8 gold medals in diving this Olympics. Now aged 19, Qiu was spotted at age 7 bouncing on a trampoline. For the last 12 years he’s lived away from home in a dedicated training facility, working six days a week. He recently scored 25 perfect 10s during a match of the 2011 FINA Diving World Series.
Recently UK competitor Tom Daley said Qiu Bo was “like a robot.”
“‘The Chinese have got a different way of working. They’re taken out of school and away from their families. There’s just this conveyor belt of Chinese divers and they work them until they break and then the next one comes along and trains,” said Tom Daley in The Daily Mail of London.
The intense training and dedication to the sport is one factor working in China’s favour. Also at work is a calculated strategy to target new sports or those contested by fewer countries. They also specifically target those featuring women athletes. In many countries women’s sports are underfunded.
Wang Mingjuan is a veteran Olympic weightlifter. She recently qualified for the Olympic team after Tian Yuan suffered a wrist injury. Tian Yuan is reigning female world champion. Wang Mingjuan weighs 48 kilograms and lifted 210 kilos in one competition. Are there many among us who can lift 5 times their body weight?
This week Time Magazine includes a feature article on the China Olympic “Machine.” The reporter interviews another female weightlifter, Li Xueying, who says:
““My responsibility is to my country. I put my heart in weight lifting because I don’t want to disappoint my coaches and team leaders … I wouldn’t say I’m excited about London.” She might as well be going for a banking conference. (Time Magazine: The Gold Standard)
The article summarises with observations that many top athletes in China respond to the Olympics with lacklustre enthusiasm. The payment of a salary, the constant training and the lack of diversification means that many Olympic athletes treat the sport just like any job.
This national emphasis on Olympic medals brings to mind the former East Germany. This small nation of 16 million competed in Olympics between 1968 and 1988. (They were absent in Summer of 1984 in support of the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics.)
“East Germany invested with zeal in sport – particularly Olympic sport, for reasons of prestige, propaganda and rivalry with West Germany – with an extensive state bureaucracy to select and train promising athletes and world-class coaches.” Source: Wikipedia
For China it is clear the nation wants to out-perform rival Taiwan, also represented at the Olympics. But even more the goal is to out-perform the United States as a demonstration of China’s growth as a global superpower. Beyond global politics, expect nation-on-nation tension when the women’s gymnastics teams vie for overall best team. The rivalry between China and the United States dates back decades and the 2008 win by China is attributed to one slip by an American competitor.
It feels like Russia versus the United States in Men’s Ice Hockey in Lake Placid in 1980. Only this time it’s not “Miracle On Ice” but “Miracle in Leotards”?
But none of this matters to Xu Haifeng. China’s first gold medalist is returning to London to rewrite Olympic history 28 years later, this time as coach in Modern Pentathalon. He’s leading the team and hopes to bring home more medals for China. Under his leadership the sport has grown to be a serious contender.
“Through years of effort, we now have more and more athletes in finals at major internationalcompetitions, such as the World Championships and World Cup series, which is the first step enroute to standing on the podium,” Xu Haifeng told China Daily
I wish all athletes from all nations the very best of luck in the coming games. And for those from China, I look forward to your many achievements to come!