By Selena Roberts
July 31, 2008

The hardship tales of American Olympians have included endless pre-dawn swim practices for the chlorine crowd, home-equity loans for elite triathlon training and the sound of Coach Bela Karolyi exhorting gymnasts to "eat air."

It is natural to grow chesty with pride for the U.S. Olympians -- many of whom shelve normal lives off the radar of the Michael Phelps Games -- to compete for their country. What if Bibb lettuce diets and water-puckered skin weren't choices? What if sacrifice was government imposed in a Dickensian system?

As the Beijing Games unfold, the Western world -- united in disdain against the human rights violations of China, synched in a chorus of "Free Tibet" -- should save a rooting voice for another object of oppression: the Chinese athlete.

I've covered eight Olympics, but I've never seen such a politically charged burden on a home team. I'll be interested to see how China handles winning -- and, more importantly, losing -- with the world there to scrutinize its rigorous win-or-bust system.

In China, authorities often act as scouts for an archaic Soviet-esque sports model, plucking children -- sometimes the only child of couples in a nation with birth limits -- from the low-income, rural reaches of the country. Possess stout legs? You're perfect for weightlifting. Wispy frame? You're made for a marathon. Able to catch butterflies? Badminton is calling you.

Under pressure, and with the riches of national glory as a carrot, parents surrender their children to the sports factories, where they are sealed off from their families for years. Having not seen her son in three years, the mother of Yang Wenjun, a canoeing champion, told The New York Times, "Every time I think about him training, I feel so sad that my heart hurts. For him, and for me, there is so much pain."

Yang has said he cannot escape the system. They won't let him out -- and he's 24. Now think about the children. At age 10, Sun Kun, a table-tennis talent who is enrolled in a Beijing sports academy, told USA Today, "I have been kicked and slapped when I didn't try hard enough. It hurts and I cry sometimes, but next time I try harder."

Hello, child services? (Only China could make any Karolyi -- Bela or Marta - seem like Glinda the Good Witch.) So it's difficult not to empathize with the Chinese Olympians.

Certainly, hurdler Liu Xiang and basketball player YaoMing are under enormous public pressure to bring home gold as the cameras roll. But the undercard athletes of China have a great burden as well, given the resources the government has uncorked to gain gold medals in such boutique sports as kayaking, rowing and weightlifting. Winning gold can mean housing for an athlete's family, a free education for the Olympian and monetary awards for all. Silver, however, doesn't mean squat.

The disturbing situation for the Chinese athletes amounts to an odd ambivalence. A gold-medal count that tops the U.S. will validate the Communist regime's factory efforts at flexing its world muscle as a superpower. A gold-medal count that falls short will leave athletes nationally disgraced as just-miss winners, with no reward for giving up their childhoods.

Can't decide? When in doubt, why not cheer for the oppressed? Free Tibet! Free Yang Wenjun!

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