China’s Gold Standard

China’s athletes demolish the competition in weight lifting and diving. It’s not a passion; it’s a job

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Training of Chinese national women's weightlifting team as they compete for a place on the Olympic team. Training takes place in the national sports training center in Beijing

At 9 a.m. sharp, in a massive gymnasium just a block from Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, the Chinese women’s weight-lifting team reports for duty. Soon the training hall echoes with the sound of weights crashing to the ground. The air grows thick with a concentration of sweat and the particles of chalk that help lifters get a firm grip on the bar. These athletes are the best of the best; within the space of an hour, I see an Olympic record surpassed and a world record nearly equaled. It’s another day on the job for the squad that is expected to run the table at the London Games.

As she steps up to a bar that holds more than twice her body weight, Li Xueying has no idea how much she’s about to lift. Numbers are the coaches’ responsibility; hers is to heft unquestioningly. This is the bond of trust that develops between a coach and an athlete who starts heaving weights at age 10. In a split-second burst of energy, the 22-year-old thrusts her arms into the air and a 132-kg barbell floats above her head. When Li drops the bar after the successful clean and jerk, the floor reverberates so much, I feel the thrum in my teeth.

Bound for London in the 58-kg weight class, Li takes little time to savor her stupendous training lift. Instead the 2009 world champion bows her head to the assembled team officials, then steps back to practice a minute shoulder movement that needs honing. When I shake her hand later, her callused palm feels like a sheet of sandpaper. Her collarbone is bruised purple from the bar. The daughter of wheat farmers from central China’s Henan province, Li shows little anticipation of her Olympic debut. “My responsibility is to my country,” she says. “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.

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Li’s ambivalence is characteristic of many Chinese Olympians, be they weight lifters, divers or gymnasts. For them, sports isn’t a chosen passion; it’s a living. Six days a week, the 30 members of the national weight-lifting team slog through the same punishing schedule. They wake at 6:30 in their dormitories, mostly in shared rooms, and do warm-ups before breakfast. Then it’s off to the gym for a few hours of training before lunch and a brief nap. More practice follows most days, while other afternoons are spent in classes whose topics range from weight-lifting technique to “ideological education” meant to inculcate patriotism. Physical therapy and dinner, which like all meals must be consumed at the national sports compound, come next, with further training squeezed in before big competitions. Lights go off at 10 p.m.

The regimen seems robotic, but the weight lifters share an easy camaraderie and seem genuinely close to their coaches and trainers. This is their family, since they all left home at 10 or 11 years old to begin their lifting careers. They rarely have free time. Liu Chunhong, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 69-kg class, has traveled all over Europe, North America and Asia for international competitions. “My favorite place in the world is France,” she tells me. It turns out that’s because Paris is the only place where she was allowed time to be a tourist. “It was very special,” she recalls of her single day off-duty. “I didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower, but I got to take a picture of it.”

Inside the Medal Machine

Women’s weight lifting is a relatively new Olympic sport, but its short history mirrors China’s state-controlled, turbocharged rise up the gold-medal charts. In everything from diving and shooting to table tennis and badminton, China has developed athletes who are so far ahead of their foreign opponents that the real competition often occurs not at the Olympics but at the country’s hotly contested national games.

China’s peerless diving team, for example, is looking to sweep all eight gold medals up for grabs at the London Olympics. The team is led by Qiu Bo, a 19-year-old prodigy whose balletic dives from the 10-m platform are so flawless that he earned an unprecedented 25 perfect 10s during one leg of the 2011 FINA Diving World Series. Chinese divers claimed all 10 of the gold medals (and four of the silvers) on offer at the 2011 World Championships and in London will look for gold in each of the individual and synchronized platform and springboard events. If any other national anthem but China’s “March of the Volunteers” is played after the diving events, it will be an upset.

The same is true for women’s weight lifting, a sport that seems custom-made for China. At the inaugural competition in Sydney in 2000, China swept the four events it entered. In Athens in 2004, the People’s Republic claimed three golds; in Beijing in 2008, it won four. This year the team expects no less than another perfect showing. “You want to know why China is so good at women’s weight lifting?” says Xu Jingfa, the national team’s coach. “It’s simple. We do everything together, and we work harder than everyone else. What time to wake up, what time to sleep, how to train, what to eat, how to think—it’s all set by our team leaders.”

What Xu says goes for all of China’s Olympic disciplines. At the Beijing Games, China surpassed the U.S. for the first time to win the most golds of any nation. That’s a remarkable achievement for a country that decided to play global ball again only in 1984, after a 32-year absence from the Summer Games over the inclusion of its political rival Taiwan.

To increase China’s medal count, the country’s sports bureaucrats have developed a winning formula: target less popular disciplines contested by fewer countries; choose sports that offer multiple medals, like for different weight classes; and focus on women, whose athletic efforts are underfunded in most countries.

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Women’s weight lifting fits all three criteria. In 1996, Chinese sports officials heard that women’s weight lifting might be added as a new event at the Sydney Games. That meant four precious golds were up for grabs. (There are seven weight classes in women’s weight lifting; each country is allowed to enter four categories.) Even before the decision was confirmed in 1998, scouts had been dispatched to the countryside, where parents were more likely than their urban counterparts to release their daughters into state care. Frantic research by China’s athletic czars had determined the ideal girl for the sport: she would have the stoicism that comes of a rural background; rapid reflexes, big hands and fleet feet; explosive jumping power since lifting is as much about quickness as strength; and matching height and wingspan for balance.

Within four years, a world-beating squad had been assembled. “China was the first country to really focus on Olympic women’s weight lifting,” says coach Xu. “We saw an opportunity … and we broke the sport down very scientifically into the smallest components. No country can compare with us.”

For their years of service, the lifters receive a state salary. Even for Olympic champions, the annual amount rarely breaks $10,000, and any money from endorsements is shared with the national federation. The athletes I speak to profess no resentment. “Our food, housing, clothing, tuition—it’s all paid for,” says Liu, who receives around $9,700 a year from provincial and national-level sports bureaus—10 times the average rural Chinese income.

Even those Chinese athletes with a higher profile—like the diver Qiu, who, along with the rest of the team, hawks Pepsi in China—are allowed little life outside the discipline that was chosen for them. After Qiu was spotted by a coach at age 7 bouncing on a trampoline, he was drafted into a state sports school to begin his diving career. Qiu’s parents haven’t visited him in Beijing, where he trains, for more than three years. Anything more than training, eating and sleeping seems to be against the rules.

During the last Olympic run-up, a pair of Chinese gold-medalist divers dared to date each other and frequent red-carpet events. Worried that their extracurricular activities were causing them to lose athletic focus, diving officials reined them in. One ended up retiring rather than submit to the system’s will, while the other quietly disappeared back into the sports machine.

Although Qiu loved diving when he first embarked on his career—he initially had to train by diving into a pit of pillows because the local government-run academy had no pool—his passion has waned. “When I was young, I thought diving was something that was really fun,” Qiu recalls. “Now I consider it more like a job.” That’s the seeming contradiction at the heart of the Chinese sports machine. Yes, the state handpicks promising kids and lavishes time and money on its young athletes. Yes, for children like Qiu or Liu who were born to poor families, the promise of lucrative endorsements and an affirmative-action college program for athletes is alluring. But many top Chinese athletes seem to be missing the passion that, to hear Olympians in other countries tell it, is crucial to truly excel.

At least until the Games start. In London, his first Olympics, Qiu’s job is to beat another teenage sensation, Britain’s Tom Daley, who in 2009 claimed the world championship at just 15 years old. The hometown favorite is as brash as Qiu is reserved. In June, Daley, through his coach, directed a tweet to the Chinese diver that contained a link to a video of himself performing a superlative dive. Qiu declined to return the taunt, but at the very least he’s now getting motivated about his job. “Every time I think about the London Olympics, I feel really excited and nervous,” he says. “Everybody wants to be the champion. Me too.”

For Liu, a knee injury means she won’t make it to the Games, despite dreams of competing in her third Olympics. But she is hoping that a teammate will check something for her. “I’ve heard that there is some train station that will be named after me during the Olympics,” says Liu, who at 19 in Athens was the youngest weight lifter, male or female, to ever win gold. “If that’s true, that’s really special, and I’d like to have a picture of it.” On commemorative maps, Crystal Palace will indeed be renamed for Liu Chunhong.

In two Olympics, Liu lifted to the heavens—and the heavens have responded with a London tube stop. Thinking about it, she can’t stop giggling. For once, it’s not about Chinese nationalism but about a young woman’s pride in her transcendence of life’s weightiest moments.

—with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Jessie Jiang/Beijing