China Seeks the Spotlight
As a hopeful sports superpower, it faces a newcomer's problems
HUANG YUBIN was not pleased with star gymnast and Olympic gold-medalist Li Xiaoshuang.Skip to next paragraph
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As Mr. Li landed in a forceful dismount from the horse vault, Mr. Huang, the men's gymnastics coach, shook his head. "Review those [video] tapes," Huang shouted. "Your shoulders should be more upright."
Up since 6 a.m. - chiding, applauding, and prodding China's elite gymnasts - the coach still faced hours more work as the evening light faded in the small, dreary gymnasium.
Working such a regimen at abysmal salaries has driven many other Chinese coaches overseas in recent years. Huang, who received more than $30,000 in government bonuses for training Olympic medal-winners, stays on but frets over the athletic exodus.
"There are many problems of brain drain," he says, estimating that almost 100 Chinese coaches have left for the prosperity of the West. "If China had tapped all those coaches, then we might have better performers today."
China's grooming of new champions is driven by the ambitions of an aspiring sports superpower but clouded by the troubles of being a newcomer to international athletics.
Since Ping-Pong diplomacy returned an isolated China to the world stage in the 1970s, Chinese sports have grabbed attention around the world and become intertwined with politics and national pride at home.
Today, as China strives to regain international stature after the political upheaval of 1989, an almost frenzied quest for supremacy colors the sports scene here. In what has become a furious diplomatic and propaganda campaign, Beijing is locked in a tight race with Sydney to stage the 2000 Summer Olympics. (See accompanying story, left.) Officials to visit
Eager to cement market-style reforms, China boasts a booming economy to lure crucial Olympic commercial sponsorships and an Asian stage for the 2000 Summer Games. But its infrastructure and sports facilities lag behind international standards, and an expected political succession struggle casts uncertainty over its bid.
Earlier this month, China scrambled to put its best foot forward for Olympic officials visiting the East Asian Games in Shanghai, widely viewed here as a practice run for a Beijing Olympics. Having staged the Asian Games in 1990, China hopes to follow in the footsteps of Japan and South Korea, which were both sites of the Asian Games and the Olympics.
Producing sports stars is also serious business and starts early. In a system that has been likened to that of Eastern Europe, especially the former East Germany, young children are plucked from their families, placed in special sports schools, and lead Spartan lives of training and competition.
But troubles still bedevil Chinese sports. The specter of drug abuse hangs over its swimmers and other athletes who have been banned from international competition. Critics among international sports officials and coaches from other countries draw parallels to drug-laden East German successes. They blame drug use on pressures to catch up quickly in international competition, and say telltale signs of steroid and other drug use (acne, prominent jaws, extremely muscular thighs) are particularly evident amo ng Chinese women swimmers.