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Pressures on Chinese athletes are enormous. Should Western parents try to follow suit?

The Costs, the Benefits: Elite Training in China

A visit to an acrobatics show in China provokes some questions about youth elite sports training.

I did not attend the Olympics in China this past summer—who needs those crowds?—but I was fortunate to be in Beijing and two other Chinese cities a month before the Games.  Olympic logos were EVERYWHERE.  I joked to a friend that if a half-hour went by without our viewing the slogan “One World One Dream,” I would think something terrible had happened to that world. 

The Chinese I spoke with were psyched about their upcoming sports prominence, and for good reason.  They knew they were on track to win the most gold medals (51) of any competing nation, and the second-most overall medals (100 to the United States’ 110) in the final count.  They were about to display not only their state-of-the-art swimming and arena facilities, but also the extraordinary prowess of their athletes. 

Harvesting Algae

The sheer expenditure of human labor, in those last weeks, struck me as overwhelming.  When we were in the seaside city of Qing Dao, for instance, where the sailing races were to be held, an algae bloom had literally turned the Yellow Sea bright green.  Thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens—working for the state, conscripted, or simply volunteering on their lunch hour—were raking and forking and spooning the green goop out of the water and loading it onto pickup trucks.  The entire fishing fleet, as far as we could see, had turned its attention to algae harvesting.  The scene reminded me very much of Dr. Suess’s children’s book, Bartholemew and the Oobleck, where the king demands something new and interesting to fall from the sky and is rewarded by witnessing his kingdom succumb to green ooze.

The algae problem, I believe, was solved before the Games began.  But I felt the stirrings of another and more urgent problem—again, as in the Suess book, the result of hubris and authoritarian rule.  On one of our evenings in Beijing, the group I was with procured tickets to a show of Chinese acrobats.  The Chinese, of course, are famous for their acrobatics and gymnastics; even the famous Peking Opera now features astounding bodily contortions as much as it does ritualized singing and dancing. 

The setting for this sold-out show had a sort of movie-theater feel, with snacks sold in the lobby and people often whispering and nudging one another.  When the curtain opened, we beheld a dozen young girls on unicycles, each girl sporting a half-dozen sticks on which she balanced a swirling china plate.  In their first stunt, the girls formed unicycle pyramids, rode wires on their cycles, balanced tea on their plates, tossed plates to one another, juggled plates, and kept the plates going with their mouths and knees as well as their hands.  At the end, to prove the legitimacy of their act, they tossed the plates to the floor, where they all broke into smithereens. 

It was a stunning performance, followed by one amazing feat after another—boys jumping twice their height to do cannonballs through flaming hoops, a boy twirling on a pottery wheel on his head while he juggled pots with his feet, a girl as a human spider dropping on a rope and contorting herself into shapes I would not wish to attempt with a Gummi worm.  One held one’s breath through most of the performances—I did, at least.  Others—both Western tourists and Chinese—seemed more able to gasp and shout and carry on as if the youngsters on stage were performing animals, impervious to human noise.  Though signs everywhere banned the use of flash photography, flashes punctuated the darkness of the auditorium every few seconds, even at the moments of greatest peril for the young performers. 

Acceptable training or child abuse?

Strangely, after two hours of such athleticism and drama, I emerged from the theatre disheartened and a mite disgusted with myself.  For days afterward, I could not get the faces of those young performers out of my mind.  Because—did I mention this?—their ages began at around six and went upward to perhaps fifteen for the boys, seventeen for the girls.  Even the youngest performers, besides being superb athletes, are thorough professionals.  Their faces display a calm, humble concentration even as they perform superhuman feats, even as they take their bows to thunderous applause.  Something about this combination of virtuosity and gravity in children so young strikes an American—this American, at least—as creepy.  No one gets that good, my gut told me as I watched the show in Beijing, without practicing twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for many years.  And these children had not been on the planet for very many years.

Rumors abound of the conditions that produce Chinese acrobats.  Some say their parents sell them to the acrobatic troupes at a tender age and they remain virtual slaves until they are past their acrobatic prime, when they are released to make their way as circus performers, street hustlers, or cripples.  Others report that poor Chinese parents scrape together the funds to send their children to the acrobatic schools as young as possible in hopes that the training will lift them out of poverty faster than any conventional schooling.  Certainly when we in the West hear of a young performer earning $50 a month plus expenses, we can make the mistake of decrying the wage without stopping to consider that the adult factory wage in China averages $2 an hour.  And it is easy to view arduous round-the-clock training, especially on a diet of rice and chicken broth, as abusive of young children, when we turn a blind eye to what those children might otherwise be doing with their time.  They would not, I suspect, be flying kites or playing pickup games of basketball.  They might well be involved in the equivalent of scraping the oobleck from Suess’s unfortunate kingdom.

The controversy over Chinese attitudes toward training and banking on young athletes boiled over at the Olympics when the gymnastics gold winner, He Kexin, was suspected along with other Chinese competitors of being two years younger than the Olympic cut-off of 16 years of age.  Such cultural collision—14 would not be considered “young” at the acrobatics show in Beijing—in turn affects worldwide attitudes toward pushing young elite athletes, especially gymnasts.  “I refuse to watch female gymnastics,” an athletics director told me during the Olympics.  “I’m not interested in viewing child abuse.”

Ironically, the “disadvantage” that Western coaches—and sometimes parents—feel when witnessing the prowess of young athletes who have been subjected to the grueling regimens of Chinese Olympic hopefuls is a resentment felt by the privileged in relation to the less privileged.  Though China’s economy is growing, and nationalism following suit, the acrobats I witnessed certainly did not hail from comfortable suburban families.  Whatever their parents’ anxiety, it had not been fueled by deciding between the price tag of a private sports academy and that of the private coach fifty miles away.  Parents were not weighing the benefits of a stress-free childhood spent in local school hallways and on sports fields versus a childhood aimed straight at a professional sports career.  No.  Their choices are grimmer than that. 

However much I decried the tacit approval of my attendance at the Beijing acrobatics show, it would be unfair of me to condemn their training system without first considering its alternatives.  And parents of elite athletes in the West should get a grip.  Let us be mindful of what it costs Chinese acrobats and gymnasts—not to mention boxers, badminton players, weightlifters, divers, shooters, and table tennis players—to achieve such results.  Let us also be mindful of the choices most American hopefuls have that these Chinese children do not have.  Oobleck is not falling from our skies.  If we are going to weigh the costs and benefits of elite training, we should weigh all its factors, including the one whose presence I could neither detect nor rule out on the impassive faces of those young acrobats: happiness.

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