Child Abuse or Champion-Building?
What is the secret to China's success? Well....besides this, there are other cultural-political matters of deep significance:
A coach counts down the time as boys hang on a bar for five minutes as part of a training session at the Gymnastics Hall of the Shanghai University of Sports August 7, 2007.
Is this type of spartan training and coaching chlid abuse or champion-building? Keep in mind, that what you see in the videoclips might appear to be worse than is actually going on; and that this sort of intensive molding and shaping of young athletes is not unique to Chinese culture or communist states.
Also see CNN coverage of elite gymnasts at Parkettes.
On Cheng Fei: Chinese gymnast endured childhood sacrifice
"Our family was poor so we hoped Cheng Fei could in some way change her life," said her mother, Xu Chunxiang. "So we thought maybe being a professional athlete is good for her."
But now that decision is history, and all that remains in the young woman's quest is Olympic gold, and the riches that come with it.
For every gold medal Cheng wins, the state authorities are expected to reward her with more than $150,000 in cash and bonuses, a huge sum in a country where college graduates are fortunate to earn $500 a month. There could also be lucrative marketing deals.
But Chinese athletes are taught that they are competing for national glory, not individual achievement or future riches. And Cheng, puffy-cheeked with a penchant for reading military books, seems unlikely to pursue a career in the limelight.
She rarely grants interviews. Her parents say that in telephone conversations with her, she often responds by saying little more than yes, no and O.K.
And after winning three gold medals at the World Cup in Tianjin, China, in May, dominating a tournament in which the U.S. team did not participate, Cheng pouted at a news conference and declared: "I think I can do better. I wasn't at my best."
Friends say it was a glimpse into the character of a young gymnast who, initially driven by her parents and the state, now pushes herself to the limit.
Cheng's road to Beijing began in central China, here in Hubei Province, a bleak industrial region where her father worked as a shipping clerk and her mother toiled in a tire factory.
She was born in 1988, an only child in a nation with a one-child policy. From the beginning, her parents say, she looked like a boy, so they treated her like one. Her father, a disciplinarian who had studied martial arts, pushed her from an early age, even pressing her to do calisthenics every morning before primary school classes began.
"I trained her like a military soldier," said her father, Cheng Ligao, who now owns a shop in Huangshi. "She followed me step by step and I shouted to her, 'One-two, one-two...."'
Yao Juying, her first coach, recalled a remarkably disciplined and focused child.
"I cannot believe how hard-working she was at that young age," Yao said. "I've been doing this for 24 years, and I've never found a second one like her."
The hardships imposed on athletes in China's national sports system are well-documented. Under pressure to produce athletes of gold-medal caliber, coaches typically force children to endure painful stretching and muscle-building exercises.
"Gymnastics is a really painful thing, especially for pretty young kids; it's torture," said Zhao Hanhua, Cheng's coach at the Wuhan Institute, where Cheng's portrait now hangs on the wall as inspiration to other youngsters. "So we tell the kids, 'This is your lifetime challenge."'
Cheng's coaches say she went through excruciating pain to make her feet turn inward so that she could perform better on the balance beam.
"The training was pretty tough, especially during leg stretching," Cheng's mother recalls. "She cried crazily, like she was dying. Her father and I accompanied her and our hearts almost broke into pieces when she cried that heart-wrenchingly."
At one point, Cheng pleaded with her parents to let her quit and return home. "We asked her to hold on because we had invested so much and lived so bitterly," her mother said.
Chuck is Right