China’s status as a sporting superpower was achieved on the back of punishing state-led training in schools, but a softer approach may enable today’s students to seek a life beyond the gym.
China’s Soviet-style sports system has been criticised in the past for its methods in grooming children for sporting success from an early age at the expense of basic education and the conventional comforts of childhood. But sporting authorities in China have embarked on a period of soul-searching in recent years, which has led to a more relaxed training environment for the country’s next generation of sports stars.
Eight-year-old Yu Zhengyang is one of thousands of youngsters in China who is motivated by his own sporting dreams rather than the demands of the state.
“I want to go to the Olympics,” said Yu. “I can play table tennis well so this is my dream. I can win the gold medal.”
Now, Yu has been training at Shichahai Sports School in Beijing.
“I believe in myself that I can play well. I came here to practise more,” adds the recently crowned champion of a major under-12s tournament in China.
China began to reassess its high-pressure training system after its rise to sporting superpower status was enshrined by the 51 gold medals it won at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Questions were asked over the true cost of this success, accompanied by widely circulated photos of small children crying in anguish during intense training sessions conducted with little time for rest or socialising.
Revelations this year that Olympic champion diver Wu Minxia was not told about her grandparents’ deaths, or her mother’s cancer, for fear of disrupting her training, prompted concern over China’s state sports system. Coaches and sports officials in China say they are now focusing on honing existing ambition and talent, rather than subjecting the country’s youngsters to intense training regimes designed to secure victory at all costs.
“Students here don’t have to do the tough training that we focused on before,” said Shi Fenghua, vice-principal of Shichahai, which has produced ten Olympic champions. “What we focus on now is the training quality. We get coaches involved in scientific research groups which train them to improve a students’ performance in less time than before.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2012.
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