SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Gold medal boot camp


Zhao Genpo the short plank of wood that he slaps periodically against his thigh. Taking a deep breath, he suddenly shouts "Now!" and three boys, each seven years old and clad only in their underwear, leap on to the wooden bars above them and commence their daily exercise routine, a punishing circuit of lifting, pulling, hoisting and stretching that extends well into the evening.
"I use this sometimes to keep them awake," laughs Zhao, referring to the wood in his hand. "But mostly it is not necessary - they know the drill by now."
The drill Zhou is referring to extends far beyond the walls of Beijing's ShiChaHai Sports School, where he is a head coach, and into the heart of China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics, an event in which the best of the ShiChaHai students hope to participate. Around the city, taxis carry pamphlets extolling the appropriateness of choosing Beijing. Many hotels, shopfronts and even traffic intersections bear the five-ringed insignia of the Games. Most striking of all, a large electric billboard has been erected in the capital's bustling shopping street, Wang Fu Jing, to count down the days to the 2008 Olympic city decision to be announced in July. Paris, Osaka, Istanbul and Toronto are competing with Beijing to host the Games that year.
Amid this feverish bid, ShiChaHai Sports School is ground zero for those in training. At the school, more than 400 children, largely selected off the street or from their previous schools for their lanky limbs and strong muscles, are in training to become the nation's future sports stars. The students range in age from five to 18 years old and train with the 60 various coaches of the institution for about five hours a day, perfecting their sports skills and, as they are constantly reminded: "To win glory for the nation!"
"There is a strong connection between a country's athletic achievements and its economic development," Zhou says. "And as China develops even more, our school will be able to provide better training and equipment. But for now, these students are the ones who need to work hard to make that happen."
And that hard work has already paid off. The institution, which opened in 1958, has produced 20 world champion athletes, including Olympians Kui Yuanyuan and Ma Yanhong and martial-arts movie star Jet Li.
Yet, despite its many success stories, the mood of the school's strict training is clear from the onset. The campus is built of stony grey concrete, the colour broken only by the huge red character posters extolling the glories of self-sacrifice and diligence. ShiChaHai trains athletes in martial arts, gymnastics, badminton, volleyball, tennis, weightlifting and table-tennis.
Entrance into this eminent institution is rigorous. "Once the students are selected to attend, they are then evaluated for the quality of their bodies," says Li Yuan, a chief administrator of the school. "They have a series of special exams, they run and stretch - basically to show themselves to us. For some of the more elite sports, such as gymnastics, the school will also look at the child's parents. If they are too tall or too fat, that child will not be accepted."
Once enrolled, all students are out of bed and running by 6am, followed by a light breakfast and morning classes from 8-12.15pm. Students take regular classes in maths, science, history and English. Lunch is served from 12.30-1.30pm and as soon as their bowls are empty and their chopsticks are down, the real work of afternoon sports practice begins. By 6pm, the sweat-covered students file in for dinner and then settle down for a few hours of homework. Lights are out - or rather the electricity is cut - in all dorms, promptly at 10pm.
Despite the hardship, placement in the school is considered a true honour, and a well-priced one. "Once chosen, students only pay for their meals and accommodation. It's cheap, about 300 yuan [HK$280] per month," says Li. "The rest is paid for by the country."
Given the athletic rigour and demanding schedule of the school, students are left with little time for recreation. "They don't have any free time," says He Xiu Ming, head coach of women's gymnastics. "Of course they love to practise and work on their sports skills."
Administrator Li says: "The students just use their free time to finish their homework. They rest on Sundays. That is the one day they are allowed to go home."
Most of the students live on the outskirts of Beijing, or in the suburbs. The single day off is intended to give them much-needed rest, but school officials remain wary of giving more time to the would-be champions, vigilant against any growth spurts that may lead to ungainly bulges or any slacking in athletic commitment. Consequently there are no rounded "little emperors" at ShiChaHai or any of the spoilt results of the one-child policy that are a common concern for China's current generation of youth. ShiChaHai's student body is decidedly streamlined.
"We are really afraid that the students will put on weight. We need them to be thin," says Li. "If you are too fat, how will you do all the activities? If we give them any more time with their families, they would just stay at home all the time and eat. Maybe they'll eat too much and gain three kilograms in one week. That would be terrible. But if they do gain the weight, we just make them practise more. Especially push-ups."
Suddenly, Wu Yong, an eight-year-old gymnast who has just spent the past three hours on the uneven bars, leaps out of the gym studio. He's skittering off to the bathroom behind his coach's back. It is the only break he will have in the entire afternoon session and he stops just long enough to comment on the school, blurting out: "It's pretty good here. Yes I'm tired, but I'm fine."
Student life circulates around ShiChaHai's many gyms and classrooms, the dining hall and the dormitories. In their rooms, the young athletes are crammed in by groups of eight and overseen by an army of "life teachers", or dorm supervisors, whose duty is to "help the students live". More concrete floors, metal bunk beds and austere plaster walls (which the students are forbidden to decorate) add to the boot-camp atmosphere. Still, ShiChaHai's athletes are offered some of the best medical care and food in the mainland, with diets tailored to each student's sport. But what is the state of emotional care at ShiChaHai? "The training is very exacting, so maybe some of them get upset at first," says Li. "Of course, if anyone is too upset, they are free to quit and go home. But that has never happened. I think they are all really happy to be here."
In the blue and grey dormitory shared by eight martial-arts students, the boys chat about their lives at the school. "Chinese martial arts are obviously the best in the world," says one of the students. They all nod solemnly when nine-year-old Wang claps his hands and shouts: "We will be the champions of the world!"
As ShiChaHai gains both national and international attention for its training programme, the funds necessary for long-needed renovations are starting to pour in. In a 1996 joint declaration by the National Education Committee and the National Sports Administration, ShiChaHai was deemed to be one of China's "key technical schools" and the "official foundation for raising Chinese athletes for the Olympic Games", according to one of ShiChaHai's directors, Liu Hongbin.
"This is one of the most important schools in the country for sports training," Liu says. "In all, China has 11 such schools, but I think this is perhaps the most critical one."
Yet despite the prestige of the institution, many of the buildings are dilapidated, with splintered wood, broken windows and cracked concrete floors.
Construction on a new gym for volleyball, table-tennis and badminton will be completed within a year. The current main gym, which this new structure is to replace, is a hulking study in concrete and high walls, yet the new gym will hardly be an architectural improvement. "Actually, I think it will just be bigger," says Liu.
ShiChaHai also has smaller gyms and workout areas, which are likewise to be renovated in the coming years. Currently, the gyms are simply large rooms of white walls, often with a single row of high, clouded windows. National flags hang on some walls. Others are festooned with bright red banners, often with a military theme, such as one in the martial arts gym that reads: "Make the Soldiers Strong, Feed the Horses Well, So That When War Breaks Out, Victory is Assured."
Another banner, which may be the closest approximation of the institution's ruthless motto, states: "Honour Is More Important Than Life. Responsibility Is Heavier Than Tai Shan."
For those who complete the five- to seven-year programme at ShiChaHai, only the best will become full-time athletes. According to school sources, most of ShiChaHai's graduates become sports coaches themselves. Others attend regular universities around the capital. But the best join Beijing or national sports teams, an option for less than 10 per cent of the student body. And very few will make it to the Olympics.
"The school just wants to get as many of the athletes as possible to high levels, to get the students on great teams and to some important competitions," says Li. "And of course, for those who qualify, to do well in the Olympic Games. That is everyone's dream."
School director Liu says: "To hold the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 is the dream of everyone in Beijing. It is the biggest wish of all Chinese athletes. And I think it will happen."