In the Wake of the News
7:47 PM CDT, August 1, 2012
LONDON — Listed at 6-foot-3-inches and 198 pounds, wing spiker Yimei Wang intimidates as the great wall of China's women's volleyball team.
In a 25-foot mural of Wang in the concourse of Earls Court, the Chinese Olympian resembles basketball star Yao Ming's little sister, all broad shoulders and wide hips, ideal traits for her sport. Graceful is not the right word to describe Wang, an elite force. Gigantic is.
When Team USA's flurry of attacks forced her to sit with an injured ankle, missing the third game of straight-set match loss in the preliminaries Wednesday night, the imposing way Wang had loomed over the match was all too clear.
"There is a lot for us to learn from an opponent like the USA," Chinese captain Qiuyue Wei said.
Mostly, the technically impressive Chinese learned how badly they need Wang. As Wang jogged to test her ankle during the third game, one thought kept repeating in my mind. How old was Wang when the Chinese government identified her as a future Olympic volleyball player?
So far, two certainties have emerged about these Olympics unrelated to the blah English food and weather: 1) China looks like a legitimate threat to win more medals than any other nation and 2) The way the country of 1.3 billion places its most physically gifted young boys and girls in Olympic-training programs is not exactly an ancient Chinese secret.
Seemingly every day, Team USA finds out a little more about what it is up against from America's biggest challenger at these Games — and how badly China wants to be No. 1. The scandal Wednesday that disqualified the Chinese badminton team for losing on purpose simply embarrassed the country. The revelations surrounding China's athlete identification system that followed several early gold-medal wins, disturbingly, reflected it.
Fed up after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Chinese government launched a massive state-sponsored effort to win gold medals in 119 sports called Project 119. The results speak for themselves. China improved from winning 50 medals in 1996 to finishing second overall to the U.S. in 2008 with 100 — but dominating the U.S. in total golds, 51 to 36. At nightfall Wednesday, China held a 30-29lead.
Keeping pace with Team USA could be interpreted in China as investment in its national sports movement paying off. I doubt anybody in Beijing asks: At what cost?
Forget for a moment the doping allegations being thrown at China's 16-year-old swimming sensation Ye Shiwen. I found it more troubling to learn her government targeted her at 7 because she possessed large hands and feet and could do 20 chin-ups. Soon after, Ye was enrolled at a state-run sports academy that systematically prepared her for the Olympic success she is (mostly) enjoying. She does enjoy swimming, right?
Ye's childhood without choices sounded similar to what Chinese tower diver Qiu Bo experienced. Qiu leads the Chinese team expecting to sweep all eight diving gold medals, which to some would justify the means by which he reportedly was raised. His well-publicized narrative describes a boy doing somersaults at 1, going off to sports school at 4 and bringing glory to his country as a teen-ager. British diver Tom Daley called Qiu a robot. Chinese admirers call him "Mr. Perfect."
But where does Qiu turn if he isn't? President Obama called Michael Phelps after Phelps made Olympic history. Will Chinese president Hu Jintao call China's diving team members if they don't?
The Kunming Metropolis Times did nothing to dispel the notion that China has lost all Olympics perspective by labeling weightlifter Zhou Jun "a national disgrace," for failing to finish her group at these Games. The paper later apologized to the teen-ager but I still wonder what reception awaits her at home.
America has its own problems. We push kids too hard into sports and make sacrifices in the name of winning that often illustrate warped values. We are far from a perfect sports society. But even the most overscheduled American kids retain options outside of sports that the best of Chinese youths sadly never can consider. To American kids, the Olympics represent a dream, not the last page of scripted reality. Celebrate that after the next U.S. gold medal.
It was as unsettling as it was enlightening to hear Chinese swimmer Lu Ying use uncommon candor discussing her country's training methods after taking silver in the 100-meter butterfly.
"In China we are always used to just train, train, train, study, study, study," said Lu, who has spent time training in Australia. "Our way of thinking has many limits and we set the limits. (Aussies) have an enthusiasm for swimming that makes me feel different and ask, 'Do you train for yourself or for someone else?' "
Lu knows the answer. It can be found by looking at the Olympic medals table.
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