Two national paths to Olympic glory
The US's approach looks ad hoc compared with China's centralized system.
COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. and BEIJING
Shawn Johnson is a uniquely American Olympian.Skip to next paragraph
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More than the smile, the endorsements with McDonald's, or even the world championship gold medal in gymnastics, Johnson is undeniably a typical 16-year-old kid. She has dissected a spider in biology class and this spring attended her high school prom.
Come August, she will compete against Chinese athletes culled from villages at age 6 and installed in sports academies designed to be medal factories.
It is a reprise of the Cold War Games, with America's hometown athletes pitted against the might of a massively funded centralized sports machine. But as Olympic spending grows, with more nations seeking the nationalistic boost success brings, both countries are realizing that they must adapt to stay ahead, each synthesizing the strengths of the other.
For the United States and China, favorites to top the gold medal table in Beijing, the challenges are exactly opposite. America seeks some measure of centralization in order to train its top prospects to rising international levels. China seeks to make its athletic assembly line more humane.
They are two poles, apparent in the sweat-soaked gyms of Beijing's Shichahai sports school and in the USOC's Olympic Training Center.
Ninety days to train a US team
It is mid-May at the Olympic Training Center, less than 90 days before the opening ceremonies in Beijing. The US women's volleyball team has gathered for its pre-Olympics training camp.
The women are divided between two courts, but not evenly. On one are mostly college girls. The gym echoes with their shouts as they scurry across the court at top speed, as though the coach's thumb is stuck on fast-forward.
On the other court come veterans, some loping into the gym for the first time this year, tall and serene as giraffes on the African veldt. They are returning from the seven-month professional season in Europe, greeting some of the new kids for the first time.
In 90 days, the new must meet the old, new plays and patterns must be instilled and perfected, bad habits corrected. In short, America must put its Olympic volleyball team together in three months. It is a process other countries spread out over years.
The primary difference is America's unique way of grooming talent. In America, the best athletes go to college or – in sports like gymnastics and track and field – seek out elite coaches. In most other countries – and in China particularly – they go to centralized training centers as teens or before.
Heather Bown is now nearly 30. Coming back to camp from her pro team in Italy is like putting on an old sweatshirt. But she remembers playing her first game for the national team back when she was still in college.
"I had no idea what I was doing," she confesses. The speed, the intricacy of the movement, the power – she says she could not cope: "I said, 'I wish I could do that.' "
The strong college system is a bedrock of America's sports infrastructure, says the USOC's Mr. Roush. But he adds that it "can be stifling in terms of growth of internationally ranked athletes," limiting how much they train.
There is also a unity in training overseas. By farming out talent development to colleges and local coaches, America's Olympic movement has long left it to them to teach the building blocks of sport: technique.