06/08/2012 - China retains one of the most demanding and controversial training systems in the world for its future Olympians; some start training as young as five years old.
Human Rights Watch has raised concerns that training practices that ignore or violate the rights of children, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are more likely in a system overseen by an authoritarian government like China’s.
“The potential for long-term physical, emotional or psychological harm is likely higher because of the lack of basic mechanisms to protect children,” says Phelim Kine, deputy director of the human rights group’s Asian division.
But the rigorous, sometime heavy-handed treatment inside China’s immense medal factory — a state system structured, planned and funded by China’s bureaucracy — is no secret inside China.
When China set up its sports and athletics program it followed the Soviet model for athletic development, and established a system in which promising youngsters were selected at a young age and sent to special state-sponsored "boot-camp-style" training centers, where they endured rigorous training programs and were prepared for international competition.
Scouts from various sports crisscross the country looking for athletes with proper physique and skills.
Writing in the state-run Global Times, columnist Lian Peng called the state’s training of its young athletes “not natural,” and he criticized it for bringing “great harm to children’s bodies.”
But China’s state run system of training future athletes is so prominent that in Vancouver in 2010, then-18-year-old Olympic speed skater Zhou Yang was publicly criticized for daring to thank her parents before the state when she won gold.
There are more than 3,000 sport schools across China instructing 400,000 athletes. The best — about 46,000 — make it to the nation’s elite sports centres. Of those 46,000, fewer than 400 will make the Olympic team.
Training can start at a tender age, in some cases as young as 5. It can consume most of the aspiring athletes’ waking hours — with a few devoted to education. 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.
If success is measured only in medals, the system works. At the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, China took home a record-breaking 51 medals, and 100 overall.