China Seeks the Spotlight

As a hopeful sports superpower, it faces a newcomer's problems

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HUANG YUBIN was not pleased with star gymnast and Olympic gold-medalist Li Xiaoshuang.

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.

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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.

Chinese athletes and coaches say they are asked about the charges by other participants at international competitions and consider the allegations an acute embarrassment. "Such accusations have done damage to the image of Chinese athletes," says Qian Kui, head coach of the gymnastics team, "and are a disgrace to Chinese athletics as a whole."

Stung by the repeated charges, Chinese sports officials say they oppose drug abuse and are spending $1 million yearly on drug testing and opening an international drug-testing center. Warnings against steroid use are now prominently displayed in Chinese training facilities.

Contending that the drug charges stem from jealousy over China's successes, officials say no one deliberately takes drugs and instead blame cases on the use of Chinese herbal medicines, many of whose compositions are unknown, and on lack of knowledge among Chinese competitors.

"Scientifically, China is less developed than other countries. Our awareness of drug use and efforts against drug use came later than efforts in the United States or Germany or other countries," says Gao Daan, vice-director of the National Research Institute of Sports Science.

"The use of drugs in sports events is just like an addiction.... It's impossible to do away with it completely," he continues. "It is hard.... There are still cases."

But Chinese protestations get little sympathy in sports circles. Many international athletic organizations are launching expensive and controversial blood-testing during training to improve monitoring.

Chinese sports ambitions also have been hindered by limited resources, officials and coaches say. Increasingly China has been forced to turn to unemployed coaches from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Soviet coaches recruited

Huang Jian, former head coach of the track and field team, said in a Monitor interview that he has recruited more than two dozen former Soviet coaches in cycling, swimming, weightlifting, and track and field for China.

At the gymnastics training center in Beijing, Olympic gold-medalist Lu Li practiced the dance moves learned from a Russian coach.

"The [former Soviet] and Romanian gymnasts are good at horse vaulting and floor exercises, so I would like to learn from them," says the elfin 16-year-old.

Compared with the lives of many in this still-poor country, athletics is a lucrative way of life and a passport out of rural poverty for many athletes.

Like the rest of China, rapid economic growth is also changing the world of sports. Economic reforms are drawing new funding from state and private companies to supplement limited government resources and even prompting the emergence of a network of professional clubs in soccer and other sports.

Chinese coaches and athletes say economic change will bring new commercial opportunities along the lines of product endorsements in the West. With just one more Olympics ahead of him, 20-year-old Li already is making plans to go into business.

"The market economy will bring benefits to athletes commercially," he says. "When that changes, I'll retire."

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