Two national paths to Olympic glory

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

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Getting ready: Unlike some national teams, which play together for years, the US women's volleyball team began training together three months before the Beijing Olympics, with some players meeting one another for the first time in May. They range from college- to professional-level and bring different techniques and styles, which coach Jenny Lang Ping, of China, must synthesize.
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    Chinese athletes often start training very young at sports schools such as Xiannongtan Sports School in Beijing, where gymnasts practice on the horizontal bar.
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    Practice: All-around world champion Shawn Johnson trained on the balance beam at the Texas ranch of Bela Karolyi, whose turned property into the US women's national training center, where athletes and coaches spend one weekend a month.
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    How to win: America's Olympic hopefuls tend to rely on school teams or private coaches to develop their skills.
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    How to win: Chinese athletes go through a well-funded, centralized training system.
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Shawn Johnson is a uniquely American Olympian.

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.

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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.

"We have to be a lot smarter about how we spend our money," says Steven Roush, head of sports performance for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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.

"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."

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.

"Our athletes are competition-ready," adds Roush.

Coping with life after sports

That is more of a challenge in China. Athletes "are not necessarily doing it from love of sport but because it's a job," says Professor Brownell.

Moreover, the American system is seen as better suited to producing athletes who can cope with life after sports. "I wanted to go to college for the opportunity to grow as a person," says Cynthia Barboza, a volleyball player and Stanford University senior. "That's unique in the US."

In China, there is the fear that all but the very best will be abandoned once their careers are over – left with a second-rate education and little chance of earning a living. Even a former national weightlifting champion, Zou Chunlan, ended up as a masseuse in a public bathhouse for ten cents a back.

Pressure is increasing to wean sports off its state dependence and the resultant focus on only a few thousand top athletes. Weightlifter Zhang Ping is a pioneer of this attempt at reform.

As a teenager, Chen eschewed the traditional system to enroll in a high school attached to Beijing Sports University, which put him on track to go to college. "I went to university because it gave me more options," says the 2005 world champion. "I felt that it would be better for my future."

China's desire to do well in these Olympics "may have delayed reform," says Brownell.

But many believe changes are coming. "We established our model against the background of a planned economy," says Shi Fenghua, deputy principal of Shichahai. "Today, we are also beginning to draw on Western experience such as university sports teams and private investment in sports clubs. We are exploring multiple ways of training athletes."

The same is true in the US, though the trend is in the reverse direction. One model is emerging in the unlikeliest of places.

One US camp blends rigor, relaxation

Ninety minutes north of Houston, where roads turn to ruddy dirt tracks through forests of wild boar and red-cockaded woodpeckers, the US is reinventing women's gymnastics. The architects are Bela and Martha Karolyi, coaches who oversaw the perfection of Nadia Comeneci and the phenomenon of Mary Lou Retton.

In the Sam Houston National Forest, on their ranch of emus and llamas, they have established a national training camp in their own image – a fusion of Eastern centralization and Western freedom.

America's top female gymnasts and their coaches come here for one weekend a month. The intent is to build a team and to teach the best techniques without cloistering the girls in athletic academics.

"What American family would send a kid away for 20 years?" laughs Bela with characteristic conviction. "What we are creating here is a system that is negating social isolation.... It is very, very American."

Each cabin has big-screen TVs and wireless Internet. During a training camp in May, team members giggled about rushing back to the common rooms, en masse, to watch "Gossip Girl." Yet, far more important, it allows Johnson to go to her prom and dissect spiders. Teammate Alicia Sacramone attends Brown University, which she describes as a "mental getaway."

Some sports, like diving, have looked at replicating the Karolyis' system, whose results have been emphatic, with the US women winning last year's world championship team title. They enter Beijing as strong favorites.

"We are ahead of the game," says Bela.

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