All but a handful of China’s 396 Olympians competing in London have qualified for the Games under the patronage of the country’s monolithic Soviet-style sports system.
Many will have been identified as potential elite athletes from a very young age by scouts and directed into special schools to train in sports assumed to match their physical attributes and aerobic results.
Most could share tales of childhoods sacrificed to gruelling training regimes in elite institutes often thousands of miles away from their home-towns and with little prospect of seeing their families more than once or twice a year.
A high-flying graduate of the regime, former world champion gymnast Fan Ye experienced the highs and lows of China’s “juguo tizhi” - literally ‘whole nation system’ - starting from her entry into a sports kindergarten at the age of six to her retirement at 20 in 2008, when she missed out on qualifying for her second Games at Beijing.
The system launched Fan to a world balance beam title in 2003 and took her to the Athens Olympics, and for a time she was known as ‘China’s Khorkina’, in reference to the Russian great Svetlana Khorkina who retired in 2004 with two Olympic gold medals and three all-around world titles.
The system also pocketed the lion’s share of Fan’s financial rewards and promptly dumped her from the national team’s set-up when her chances of winning gold began to diminish.
The punishing training and dieting also delayed her physical maturity for years.
Despite looser regulation and the development of professional sports leagues in China in recent decades, the regime remains as entrenched as ever and officials credit it with lifting the country to the top of the Olympic medals table with 51 golds at the Beijing Games.
Critics call it a waste of money in a country where tens of millions remain mired in poverty, however, and say it only benefits a handful of athletes at the top of the tree.
It has also been blamed for fuelling more unsavoury aspects of top-level sport, including doping, age-faking and corruption, while bringing the country major success in only a handful of disciplines like diving, gymnastics and table tennis.
Now a graduate of one of China’s top universities, Fan, who has worked as a journalist, events host and gymnastics referee since her retirement, is not among the critics. She told Reuters she has few regrets about giving up her childhood to become ’state property’.
But she voiced concern for the thousands of Chinese athletes who made the same sacrifice, but lacked the good fortune to be among the absolute best and finished their careers ill-equipped to compete away from the gymnasium.
Fan grew up in Baoding, a mid-sized city near Beijing, to parents who were both doctors.
Unlike many Chinese athletes, her entry into the sports regime was neither planned by her parents nor inspired by talent-spotting scouts, but was instead a result of her wild behaviour as a young child.
“Before I was accepted to a sports kindergarten, I had been declined by three regular ones because I was too naughty,” Fan said.
“I spent age 6-7 at the sports kindergarten. They measured my height and shoulder width when I enrolled and because I was short and slim and had light bones, the teacher had me train in gymnastics. But my parents did not know I practised competitively until much later. They thought I was doing some stretching exercises.
“At the kindergarten, kids only trained in their free time. Only after the teachers thought you had promise would they cut your class time and increase your training.
“After leaving kindergarten, I spent a year in a regular school and then left for (Hebei provincial capital) Shijiazhuang for professional training when I was eight with a province-level team run by Hebei’s sports bureau.
“Starting from the second year, I would have my own salary.”
After seeing the intensity of Fan’s training at Shijiazhuang, her mother told one of her coaches that she regretted putting her daughter into the sports kindergarten.
The coach responded: “Do you think she’s only your daughter? She’s the state property now!”
Fan said: “I carried this ‘state property’ concept with me all the way to the national team. I thought it was good because you had no other choice but to train hard.
“I began to control my weight from a very young age, and I did not menstruate until I was 20, the year I entered Peking University.
“Our bodies matured very late because we were training so hard and often those in their adolescence had no female features at all. Many aged 18 or 19 still looked like small kids. But we did not take any drugs (to delay maturing).
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