Sunday, August 24, 2008

Child Abuse or Champion-Building?

A young Chinese athlete exercises in front of a Chinese flag at a gymnastics hall at the Shichahai sports school in Beijing December 5, 2007.
REUTERS/David Gray

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.

Also blogging:
Chuck is Right

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Blogger Gayle said...

Whatever! It looks like child-abuse to me, Wordsmith. It also nearly turned my stomach to watch those tiny girls hanging from the bars on the wall. Good grief! This goes on and people in our own country worry about water boarding terrorists!

Monday, August 25, 2008 7:10:00 AM  
Blogger Bloviating Zeppelin said...

That mindset translates many places. One of them is into the Chinese military. Do the Logical Extension.


Monday, August 25, 2008 7:14:00 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

I have always thought this was abusive. We have to keep in mind though that they are not the only country that does this. We start kids at an early age too and some of these coaches are not easy on these kids. In fact a lot of them are ex Soviet bloc coaches. The Chinese are clearly worse but we need to clean our own house first. I like the Olympics but I think we need to question the cost to these kids. I sometimes think we need a little perspective.

Monday, August 25, 2008 8:12:00 AM  
Blogger The WordSmith from Nantucket said...


While I agree that there are some methods that crosses the line into abuse, emotionally and physically, what you see in the video might appear to be worse than is actually taking place.

When you see a kid who is being stretched like a pretzel, you have to keep in mind that for a coach to be bending an athlete's leg backward to touch his head, the athlete already has to be flexible. What looks painful to the average joe, isn't to the gymnast who's been stretching for much of her life.

Sure there is pain and discomfort in training. But so long as injury isn't occurring, so long as the kid is there by choice, I think people should withhold knee-jerk judgment. I don't know any rhythmic gymnast who isn't manually stretched like the kids in the video. Different people have different levels of pain tolerance, and sometimes, it's a matter of conditioning the mind. I've seen kids burst into tears over the simplest exercise. Give me a break! It's a stretch for me to believe that because a coach pushed a kid beyond his comfort zone, that it's automatic abuse.

Chuck, I work alongside some of those ex-Soviet bloc coaches you speak of. They can be tough, but I haven't seen anything that I'd be alarmed with, as far as how they are training American kids in my gym.

Monday, August 25, 2008 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger cube said...

The ChiComs have a long record of abusing the rights of their people. I'm not surprised that they pick on those of the children too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 9:45:00 AM  
Blogger Indigo Red said...

Child abuse.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 9:13:00 PM  
Blogger The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

Or a distorted picture.

Saturday, September 20, 2008 6:52:00 PM  

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