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Two national paths to Olympic glory

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

(Page 3 of 3)

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

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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.