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Two national paths to Olympic glory

The US's approach looks ad hoc compared with China's centralized system.

(Page 2 of 3)

"In other countries, everyone grows up in the same system and learns the same technique," says Nicole Davis, an Olympic volleyball veteran. "In the US, every coach has his own way."

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It means that US teams are virtually always less technically sound than their top competition. Ms. Davis admits to being slightly in awe of teams like the Chinese, who spend years together under one system, and can "run all these combinations where you have no idea what's going on."

In China, mechanical precision

There is no mystery to how this technique is taught. At the Shichahai sports school in Beijing, a roomful of boys and girls play the same ping-pong shot over and over again until it is mechanical in its precision. Chen Jiao is a 13-year-old badminton player. She bats shuttlecocks endlessly with a partner.

"Of course I want to be an Olympic champion," she says during a break. "I knew I would have to work this hard. Everyone here works hard."

Americans work hard, too, of course. But the word is more poignant here. For the children of factory workers and farmers – young girls barely taller than an armchair, who tumble silently through gymnastics floor routines, backs arched, mouths taut – this might be their only chance at a better life.

Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, was a member of the Chinese national gymnastics team. Before he moved to the US at age 22, he had never cooked himself a meal. "You don't have to worry about anything," he says.

This promise is Shichahai's engine, a hum that radiates from every floormat – determination laced with the expectation of mothers, fathers, and an entire nation.

If Shichahai's 550 students were a country, they would have tied with Brazil and beaten Canada in the Athens medals table.

There are 221 specialized schools like Shichahai in China, training some 23,000 young athletes who have been singled out in a rigorous selection system. As they grow older, the best join provincial sports teams and then, perhaps, the national team.

"Highly concentrated government investment in elite sports obviously works," says Susan Brownell, an anthropologist at the University of Missouri who trained in track and field in China during the 1980s.

More countries look to centralization

Other countries are now trying to follow suit. While China and Russia have maintained strong government support, countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom have increased funding through sports lotteries.

Since the UK lottery began in the 1990s, funding for elite sports there has grown from $10 million to $200 million – typical of a trend among the top 12 Olympic nations, the USOC's Roush says.

"It has allowed us to import some of the world's best coaches and adopt the world's best practices," says Matthew Crawcour of UK Sport, which oversees the disbursement of the lottery money.

Roush draws a contrast, deadpan: "Our government is not in a position to write us $200 million checks."

Though complicated and opaque funding make it virtually impossible to gauge how much countries are spending on Olympic sports, Roush estimates that the US would come in seventh or eighth worldwide.

It is one reason the USOC has relied on colleges and local coaches: There is no money for a more centralized system. Yet he and others do not dismiss the advantages of the American system.

From its earliest stages, American sport is about competition. While other countries are in what Roush calls "skills development mode." Americans are battering each other on the playing field. This creates a mental toughness and a will to win perhaps unique in world sport.

What sets the US apart "is our grit and our fighting spirit," says Logan Tom, a veteran on the US women's volleyball team.