“Sport is a serious business at the Shichahai School, which is one of more than 300 elite, and controversial, government-funded academies devoted to training the next generation of Chinese athletes”, writes Telegraph in a report published in 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics.
Training for sports starts at a young age in China. Most were scouted at the tender age of six and sent to special sports schools along with thousands of others who showed promise. The majority don’t make the grade but for those that remain, the pressure to win is intense.
Some 600 children aged between six and 18, from all over China, board full-time at the Shichahai Sports School. Six days a week, they study in the mornings and train for four hours in the afternoon. Parents are allowed to see their offspring only at the weekends, but most are willing to put up with the separation in the hope of reaping the lavish rewards won by Olympic champions. Parents of promising athletes who are poor are often given a home in their hometowns by the local sports bureau. Others just want a decent education for their children.
Shichahai has played a major role in producing top athletes for the country who go on to win gold medals in Olympics. But for all its success, the school, and the system it represents, has been accused of pushing its young charges too hard, and even of abusing them. On a visit to Shichahai in 2005, Britain’s four-time Olympic rowing champion Sir Matthew Pinsent said he saw a seven-year-old girl crying while being made to do handstands, and a boy with marks on his back.
Six-year olds haul their heads above the bar repeatedly – their faces show the strain but they do not utter a sound. Often the coaches are strict and un-smiling. Some coaches are accused of regularly beating the students. In one case, the Liaoning Anshan Athletics School was found to be doping pupils as young as 15 with the hormones erythropoietin (EPO) and testosterone.
Wu Yigang, a professor at Shanghai University, told the Washington Post, “Some schools stress only sports and can be viewed as little more than athlete-producing assembly lines. They often require six hours of training or more a day. Many Chinese athletes have devoted so much of their time to training they can’t read beyond the fifth grade level.”
When these kids leave athletic schools, they can’t do anything because they have no skills. Local sports commissions sometimes provide jobs, but in the end, many become factory workers. Some athletes are promised job as policemen when they retire, but these promises are often broken.
China Sports Daily estimates that 80 percent of China’s retired athletes suffer from unemployment, poverty or chronic health problems resulting from overtraining.