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Two years ago, "talent-selection officers" spotted Xu Jiamin, the now-12-year-old daughter of Guangdong farmers, and recruited her for her long legs, short torso and large hands—ideal attributes for a weight lifter. Xu had never heard of weight lifting when the scouts approached her, and she says her parents weren't sure a career lifting barbells was what they wanted for their little girl. But the officers impressed upon them that weight lifting could be Xu's ticket out of rural poverty. Besides, with Beijing 2008 coming up, Xu might one day represent her nation on home turf.
Poor Chinese farmers don't tend to disagree with government officials putting on a hard sell, so Xu's parents relented, allowing her to be sent to a district-level sports school, where she cried for days at the prospect of constantly lifting heavy weights. Xu transferred to Weilun last year, where she now trains six hours a day, six days a week. She sees her parents once a year. During the school year, Xu also attends a couple of hours of class a day, but she admits she's often too tired to pay attention during the evening academic sessions. On a scorching summer afternoon, Xu is wearing a shirt emblazoned with a Barbie doll, and her hands are covered with calluses and blisters. "Weight lifting isn't too much fun, but it's my job," she says. "My coach tells me that no matter how many times you fail, if you succeed once, that's good enough." Watching Xu shuffle up to the barbell, rub chalk onto her torn hands and clean-and-jerk 40 kg above her 33-kg body, Lin Zhiyi, a former swimmer and current Weilun administrator, shakes his head. "Weight lifting is terrible for these girls' bodies, especially their backs," he says. "But as long as it earns China medals, their sacrifice is worth it, isn't it?"
The relentless professionalization of sport is, of course, not just a Chinese phenomenon. Aided by exhausting, full-time training programs, the latest in technology and, on occasion, banned substances, performances in virtually every sport have improved by literal leaps and bounds over the past quarter-century. Hallowed records such as Bob Beamon's long jump have fallen as top-level athletes train so single-mindedly that the idea of Roger Bannister's breaking the four-minute mile in 1954 as a diversion from his medical studies seems almost absurdly quaint.
But even in this brave new world of hyper-athleticism, no country systematically trains its kids as young and as hard as China does. Wu He, vice director of Guangdong's table-tennis association, has been involved in the sport for 46 years, first as southern China's champion and then as a coach. When he started out, most kids were 12 when they were picked by talent scouts for municipal-level sports academies. "Today, children must start, at the very latest, at six years old," he says. "Otherwise it's too late." To increase the level of play, China lowered the minimum age at municipal table-tennis competitions from 10 years old to 8 a decade ago. And even younger kids are often allowed to compete, if they are good enough. "Personally, I feel that kids shouldn't begin training so young," says Wu. "But we have no choice."