China's Soviet-Style Athletics





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Published on Aug 30, 2008

The Beijing Olympics brought concerns from many groups that China's poor human rights record was being overlooked. However, they have also brought into China's state-run sporting system, and the often-disturbing lifestyles it imposes on its athletes. Here's more.

Chinese Olympic diver Guo Jingjing won two gold medals at the Bejing Olympics, added to previous wins in Athens. But she suffers from a number of health issues, including eyesight problems rumored to be so severe that she can hardly see the diving board as she competes.

She had announced plans to retire after this year's Games, but it's not clear whether she will ever recover her vision. The damage is said to be caused by her intense training. She began diving competitively at age six, before her retina were fully developed.

Guo's fellow Olympic diver Chen Ruolin is 15 years old and weighs a just 66 pounds. Her state-appointed coach ordered her to skip dinner for one year leading up to the Games so she could stay thin and make a smaller splash when she hit the water.

Such stories abound in a country where top-level athletes are usually chosen at extremely young ages, based on body type, and placed in intensive, state-run training programs to prepare them for eventual Olympic competition. They train all day, everyday in an environment many athletes in the West might consider harsh—or even abusive. But for those in China's athletic system, which is inspired by the Soviet Union, it's just the way of life demanded by the Communist Party.

But not all of the athletes' suffering is physical. Gold-medal weightlifter Cao Lei was so cut-off from the outside world that no one told her that her mother was dying. She only found out two months after the funeral, and never had a chance to say goodbye.

Gold-winner in judo Xian Dongmei said she had not been able to see her own 18-month-old daughter for over a year.

While Olympians from other countries might speak of getting back to their normal lives after the Games, many Chinese athletes will be returning to the camps that have housed them since they were children, away from family and friends, and without the chance to develop any hobbies or outside interests. It is the price they pay in order to realize the Chinese Communist Party calls the "patriotic duty" of getting more gold medals than the United States.

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