This assembly line of pain at the Weilun Sports School in China's southern Guangdong province asks an extraordinary amount from its 1,000 full-time students. Here, in the cavernous gymnastics classroom, the girls are drilled again and again as if they were in competition, with judges monitoring their frozen smiles. They must not show weakness, no matter how grueling the exercise. "Big smile, little friend," yells Yang as the girls go through 50 reps of leg kicks with weights tied to their calves. Yang's wife, also a coach, observes: "Maybe to foreigners, this looks cruel. But it's because we start kids very young and train them hard that we have become so successful in gymnastics." Says her husband, who has been coaching since 1983: "The Chinese race knows how to endure hardship. Our job is to push these kids to their limits, so they can perform gloriously for our nation." Behind him on the wall, below oversized Olympic and Chinese flags, giant red lettering summarizes the motto of the Weilun school, proud breeding ground of eight athletes at this month's Athens Olympics: "Patriotism, Unity, Struggle and Devotion."
The cold war may have ended, but the echoes of that struggle linger in China's athletic-training program. Across the nation, nearly 400,000 young hopefuls in 3,000 sports schools toil to bring glory to their motherland. Most are plucked from elementary school and sent to train at these state-run sports academies before the age of nine—regardless of their interest in athletics. Given such a concerted culling of China's 300 million youngsters, it's perhaps no surprise that in less than two decades of Olympic participation, China—which stayed away from the Games in previous decades in protest of Taiwan's participation—has transformed itself from a sporting afterthought with just five gold medals in 1988 to a juggernaut with 28 golds in 2000. By Sydney, China had climbed to No. 3 in the overall medals tally, trailing only the U.S. and Russia.
China's Olympic prowess, though, is hardly a reflection of a nationwide passion for sweaty competition. Unlike Americans or Australians, the vast majority of Chinese are not sporty people who tote racquets or join gyms. China's international athletic success is about nationalism; it is the physical expression of a resurgent country, a rebuttal to its history as the "sick man of Asia" exploited by colonialists during the waning days of the Qing dynasty. The average Chinese—for whom supporting the motherland in athletic competition is one of the few instances in which mass, spontaneous celebration is allowed—is conditioned to see sporting victories as a metaphor for China's ascendance. "Our current national sports policy is called 'Winning Pride at the Olympics,'" says Hao Qiang, head of the State General Administration of Sport's Competition and Training Department. "By being successful at the Olympics, China will erase our shameful past of being humiliated by foreign powers."
Now, with Beijing set to host the 2008 Games, China wants not only to bury the past but to set the tone for the future. The Beijing Olympics "is about more than just sports," says Ren Hai, a professor at the Beijing Sport University. "In 2008, China's development will be acknowledged and accepted by the world." Chinese sports czars have announced that 2008 will bring the nation an unprecedented number of Olympic laurels, based upon a "gold-medal strategy" approved by no less an authority than China's Cabinet.
Indeed, to ensure that the country averts a face-losing performance on home ground, China's leaders are again revving up the sports machine, ending a reformist era during which the mainland began to take a more humanistic approach to sports. In the mid-1990s, amid a greater societal push for individual freedom, China reformed a punishing training system that had forced millions of children into athletic servitude just like the Soviet machine, which was its model. Chinese athletes were given extra help in attending university after retirement, and financial incentives offered the nation's sports stars a reason beyond patriotism to struggle for the motherland.
But after Beijing won its Olympic hosting bid in 2001, further reforms stalled. An effort to induct only children with an interest in sports—instead of targeting those with promising physiques—was scrapped. "When we got the Beijing Olympics, people realized we couldn't give up a system that had produced such good results," says Zhao Yu, a sports historian whose book, Superpower Dream, critiques China's Olympic efforts. He adds, "Sports is really the only way in which socialism has been successful in China." The nation's obsession with sporty achievements dates back to Chairman Mao Zedong himself, who once demonstrated his vitality by swimming a stretch of the Yangtze River. Soon after the founding of the People's Republic, the Great Helmsman ordered a nationwide hunt for perfect physical specimens to embody the new China.