With Olympics only a couple of months away, the training regimen of Chinse athletes are under the scanner. Consensus - they are under tremendous pressure to win laurels and they risk injuries in the process.
Those regarded as potential gold medalists have been urged out of retirement, and some female stars have been urged to resume training and competing soon after giving birth. Previous gold medal winners, meanwhile, have heard for four years that failure to pull off a repeat victory will let the whole nation down. Many have trained for the Games despite serious injuries. A female weight lifter, Tang Gonghong, persevered until early this year despite having such high blood pressure that her chief coach said it "threatens her life at any moment."
These pressures can perhaps be seen most clearly in the recent experience of Liu Xiang, a Chinese track athlete who became a national hero and the country's most popular sports star in Athens when he won the 110-meter men's hurdles, a sport in which China had never excelled. Liu's coach was recently quoted in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, as saying, "Officials from the State General Administration of Sport once told us that if Liu cannot win another gold medal in Beijing, all of his previous achievements will become meaningless."
So far, Liu has not had to contend with a serious injury. But last August, after winning the track world championships in Japan, he spoke of the agony of high expectations. "I've been tortured these days," Liu said. "I was afraid of speaking too much. I've never been so nervous; more nervous than in the Olympics, because there's too much attention on me."
For many athletes, playing through injuries is standard practice, writes Howard W. French in International Herald Tribune.
Most of China's Olympic-caliber competitors are tightly controlled by a system that manages almost every aspect of their lives, often from early childhood. This includes housing, education, medical care and interactions with the public and the news media. In this system, decisions about training regimens and the risks of injuries do not get much of a public airing. The case of Zheng Jie, a top female doubles tennis player, however, provides a glimpse of how the obligation to perform often operates.
Despite a painful ankle injury, Zheng played a punishing schedule last year to gain tour points required to compete in the Olympics. In a news conference after she lost in the first round of the French Open, she broke down in tears. "The pain in my foot was so strong I could hardly concentrate," she said.
Zheng said her doctor had told her that she risked permanent injury if she kept playing without treatment and rest. But in an interview, she said her coach denied her request to concede the French Open match. In a television interview after her defeat, the coach, Jiang Hongwei, said Zheng and her teammate, Yan Zi, "had too much concern for their injuries, which was an important factor in their performance."
"The philosophy of our sports system has several bad points," said Chen Peide, former director of the Zhejiang Province Sports Bureau. "Urging people to tenaciously strive to succeed, to be faster, to jump higher, to be stronger and to win more gold medals usually comes at the expense of athletes' health.
"When they're having a 100- or 102-degree fever, we tell them not to give up so easily," he said.
Chen said that a Communist war slogan, "Don't retreat from the front lines with light injuries," was a pet phrase of Chinese athletes and coaches.
While Zheng invoked her doctor's advice in appealing to her coach, for many other Olympics hopefuls, medical decisions are made without consulting medical professionals.
The athletes themselves basically have no idea of their injuries and they usually don't have a say" in how they are treated, said Dr. Wang Yubin, the medical director for the sports injury department at Shanghai East International Medical Center. Decisions about how to handle injuries of important athletes, he said, are made by officials of the sporting establishment.
If it is true that the system pushes athletes hard, many athletes are just as demanding of themselves. Since the 1980s, when the commercialization of sports began in China, money has become a powerful incentive alongside the drive for glory. "I once treated a national weight-lifting champion and warned him not to carry on in the sport anymore," Wang said. "I told both him and his parents that in the worst case, he could be paralyzed for life. The parents replied that there was nothing for their child to do but persevere.
"They said, 'What else can he do if he doesn't lift weights?' "
Li Zhuo, a retired silver medalist in the women's weight-lifting 48-kilogram category in 2004, put it another way. "Once you win gold, your status is changed and you become another person," she said, referring to the monetary awards and business opportunities showered on victors. "One Olympics can change an athlete's life, and that's pressure."
According to a study published in 2000, 24 percent of Chinese divers have had retina injuries. Yu Fen, a former national coach, said the high rate was because of poor screening of young athletes for congenital eye problems and antiquated, high-intensity training methods. Divers wear no goggles, and repeated impact with the water can damage eyes, Chinese medical experts say, especially if divers fail to close their eyes just before hitting the water.
Dr. Wang Yongli, a sports medicine expert at Beijing Sports Hospital who discovered a high incidence of retina damage when he conducted a survey at the end of 1990s, said there had been minor changes in training techniques since then. But he said he did not expect them to have much effect on the rate of injury.
"I don't have any solid numbers to show what it's like in other countries, but the rate should be lower compared to what I've found in the Chinese team," Wang said.
"The training regimen of foreign athletes by no means compares to ours, meaning the hours devoted to training, and the number of dives into the water. Chinese divers are professionals, which means they practice all day long, while Australians and Canadians might be a bank clerk or a dentist, who only spend two hours practicing after work."
"Pressure doesn't just come from the central government, but from each province, and even from the cities the athletes come from," said Chen, the former Zhejiang Province Sports Bureau director. "Quotas are assigned to each province, and if a province won several gold medals last time, it should perform at least as well this time. The promotion of sports officials in each province depends on how many medals their province has won."
In many sports, parents can go years without seeing their children, and may speak to them only once or twice a year. But local and provincial officials are unstintingly attentive, showering gifts on the families during Spring Festival, China's most important holiday, to make up for the children's absence.
Chen Xiaomin, a women's weight-lifting champion in the 2000 Olympics, said the bitterness was likely to continue. "It takes at least 10 years' practice before you can become a world champion," Chen said. "Once you win a world championship, you can go to college for free, or work, or become an official. If you don't, you get nothing but injuries all over your body. No diploma, no job, no skill."