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The Chinese sports machine’s single goal: The most golds, at any cost

By fielding 413 athletes in Tokyo, its largest number since the Beijing Games in 2008, China aims to land at the top of the gold medal count — even if the Chinese public is increasingly wary of the sacrifices made by individual athletes.

By: New York Times | Tokyo |
July 31, 2021 9:48:01 am
China in Tokyo2020Weightlifter Hou Zhihui of China competes in the women’s 49-kilogram division at the Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 24, 2021. Hou won weight lifting gold and shattered three Olympic records, part of a fearsome Chinese squad that aimed to sweep every weight class it was contesting. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Hannah Beech

Six days a week since she was 12 years old, with only a few days of time away each year, Hou Zhihui has been driven by one mission: heaving more than double her body weight into the air.

On Saturday, at the Tokyo Olympics, Hou’s dedication — sequestered from her family, dogged by near constant pain — paid off. She won gold in the 49-kilogram division and shattered three Olympic records, part of a fearsome Chinese women’s weightlifting squad that aimed to sweep every weight class it was contesting.

“The Chinese weightlifting team is very cohesive, and the support from the entire team is very good,” Hou, 24, said after winning gold. “The only thing we athletes think about is focusing on training.”

China’s sports assembly line is designed for one purpose: churning out gold medals for the glory of the nation. Silver and bronze barely count. By fielding 413 athletes in Tokyo, its largest number since the Beijing Games in 2008, China aims to land at the top of the gold medal count — even if the Chinese public is increasingly wary of the sacrifices made by individual athletes.

China in Tokyo Olympics Team China at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23, 2021. China sent 413 athletes to the Games, its largest ever delegation, nearly 70 percent of whom are women. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

“We must resolutely ensure we are first in gold medals,” Gou Zhongwen, the head of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics.

Rooted in the Soviet model, the Chinese system relies on the state to scout tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2,000 government-run sports schools. To maximize its golden harvest, Beijing has focused on less prominent sports that are underfunded in the West or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.

It is no coincidence that nearly 75% of the Olympic golds China has won since 1984 are in just six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics and weightlifting. More than two-thirds of China’s golds have come courtesy of female champions, and nearly 70% of its Tokyo delegation are women.

China in medal tally China was on top in the Tokyo 2020. (Last updated on Wednesday, July 30)

Women’s weightlifting, which became a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games, was an ideal target for Beijing’s gold medal strategy. The sport is a niche pursuit for most athletic powerhouses, meaning that female lifters in the West must scramble for funding. And with multiple weight classes, weightlifting offers up four potential golds.

For Beijing’s sports czars, it did not matter that weightlifting has no mass appeal in China or that the preteen girls funneled into the system had no idea that such a sport even existed. At the weightlifting national team’s training center in Beijing, a giant Chinese flag covers an entire wall, reminding lifters that their duty is to nation, not to self.

China in tokyo 2020 The Chinese badminton players Wang Yi Lyu, left, and Huang Dong Ping celebrate their win over South Korea in the quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. They will face their compatriots ÊZheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong in the gold medal game for mixed doubles on Friday, July 30, 2021. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

“The system is highly efficient,” said Li Hao, the head of the weightlifting squad at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and the current director of the anti-doping department at the Center for Weightlifting, Wrestling and Judo at the General Administration of Sport of China. “It’s probably why our weightlifting is more advanced than other countries and regions.”

Beijing’s focus has been on sports that can be perfected with rote routines, rather than those that involve an unpredictable interplay of multiple athletes. Aside from women’s volleyball, China has never won Olympic gold in a large team sport.

In Tokyo, Beijing’s strategy had delivered, through midday Thursday, 14 gold medals, edging out the United States and Japan for the lead. China captured the first gold of the Games, in the women’s 10-meter air rifle, and scored its first fencing victory. (The sports in which China is dominant are clustered in the first week of the Games, while the United States’ strengths are spread out.)

But in some of China’s traditional strongholds, like table tennis, diving and weightlifting, hopes of golden sweeps did not materialize. There were other disappointments before the Games began. A top swimmer was banned because of doping. The men’s soccer, volleyball and basketball teams failed to qualify.

For the Chinese sports machine, all those punishing years of effort can still be foiled in the heat of Olympic competition. On Monday in Tokyo, Liao, the lifter in the 55-kilogram division, began the event as the reigning world champion. Two days before, in a lighter weight class, Hou had taken the gold.

Liao marched onto the stage Monday with an expression that hovered between resolve and resignation. In the last moments of competition, a Philippine rival surpassed her to claim gold.

Afterward, Liao, 26, stood crying, her breath jagged. Her coach wrapped her arm around Liao and sobbed, too. Eventually, Liao, red-eyed, took questions from Chinese reporters. A silver was a great achievement, one journalist said. Liao looked at the floor.

“Today, I did my best,” she said. The tears flowed again.

The trauma of all those years fighting the unforgiving force of mass and gravity weighed on Liao’s body.

“They’ve been there for years,” she said of her injuries. “Over and over again.”

But unlike Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, high-profile Olympians who have spoken of the emotional strain of so much pressure, Liao did not address the mental toll of what she has done, day after day, since she was a little girl.

Liao sighed. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. The National Games were coming up, she said, and she would be representing her home province of Hunan. Sports funding for China’s provinces depends in part on how each does in the National Games.

The Olympics were over for her. She had a new job to do.

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