A common misconception is that sports in China are not fun. According to this view, the Chinese Sports Commission storms the countryside plucking children from the bosom of their families and forcing them to attend rigorous provincial sports schools. The best athletes are then harvested from these programs and shipped to the most advanced training centers, such as the one in Beijing, where they're honed for international competition. It's a tough job for a kid, but someone's got to do it.
Certainly, China starts its athletes young, and sometimes there's heartache for a child struggling to keep up at sports school (see preceding story). But for many Chinese children, particularly those who enjoy the fruits of success at a tender age, sports are not only fun, they're a whole lot of fun.
Witness the world-beating Chinese divers. They're still kids for the most part. They're smiling. They're spirited. They're singing, dancing, having a ball. And they're doing exactly what they want to do, which means diving, diving, diving.
Ask world champion springboarder Gao Min, who turned 18 last month, why she started diving, and she says, "Diving's fun. I was doing gymnastics and just playing around when I went to the pool. When I was 10, I started diving for the heck of it, and the gymnastics helped. It was fun." Ask platform diver Chen Xiaodan, 14, if a coach made her do it. "Oh, no. I started myself, when I was seven, and I got better on my own," she says. "The coaches came later."
August 14, 1988
Under the misconception, the Beijing Gymnasium, where national teams in several sports come to sharpen up before important competitions, is a prison. In fact, life at the gym, at least for the divers, resembles a session at summer camp. Susan Brownell, an American who was working in Beijing on her doctorate in Chinese sports and culture, says, "Most star athletes look at their careers fondly, not like they're part of a machine. Their relationship with their coaches really is like that between a parent and child."
And the Beijing Gymnasium is more than a gym. It's a complex of three large, grim buildings near the Temple of Heaven. One of the structures is a dorm, another contains basketball and volleyball courts, and the third houses the pool. They're surrounded by playing fields. The facilities aren't elaborate, or even impressive; for example, the clocks in the pool building are broken.
The divers get up early when they're in residence in Beijing, and after breakfast they jog to a soccer field to loosen up. The girls, some of whom stand less than five feet and weigh about 80 pounds, kick a volleyball because a soccer ball would be too heavy. The boys are a little bigger, but not much. Two of China's best male platform divers, Chen Yingjian and Xiong Ni, are 14, and neither is taller than 5'3" or weighs more than 105 pounds. But they're no sissies; they kick a real soccer ball. The kids just boot the balls up and down the field, laughing and hollering. They're goofing around. Their diving coaches watch without interfering.
After the athletes have worked up a light sweat, they head inside to practice under the knowing eye of head coach Xu Yiming. There is only one 10-meter platform and one three-meter springboard at the pool, so no one escapes his scrutiny. He isn't light with the criticism. Although Yingjian and Ni are barely in their teens and are trying to master the most difficult dives off the high tower, Xu draws them aside and curtly points outs what's wrong with their form. Soccer's one thing; it's O.K. to fool around while kicking the ball. Diving at the world-class level is quite another; it's all business at the pool. The team's workout is brisk and intense. By lunchtime the kids are ready for a break.
At the cafeteria they dig into steamed bread; rice; sautèed meat, fish or vegetables; fruit; ice cream; and yogurt. Their diet is much better than that of the average Chinese. That the food is healthful as well as ample is also true; after all, you shouldn't trust a teenager when it comes to nutrition, and the officials here don't.
After lunch the divers have their tutorials. Since most of the team is school-age, lip service, at the least, must be paid to academics. But lip service is all it is. Studies don't occupy much of the day or much of the kids' attention. The teachers give instruction in Chinese language, math, physics, history and geography, but realize that book learning plays second fiddle to sports at the Beijing Gymnasium. Xiaodan is one of the more studious divers: she reads novels and is an avid stamp collector. But even she squirms in her seat during the tutorials.
When school lets out at 4 p.m., the card playing begins. Gao runs a game—it's a variation on old maid called gong zhu—that makes Nathan Detroit's look little-traveled. She has beaten her friends in a dozen different countries, giggling all the while. She shuffles fast, deals fast and wins fast. And she's as fiercely competitive when holding cards that look oversized in her tiny hands as she is when performing on the diving board.
The card games are followed by a half hour of volleyball, and then it's back to the pool. "Yes, we have five hours of training a day, but it's not hard," says Tan Liangde, the men's silver medalist in springboard at the L.A. Olympics. "The variety—volleyball, some weight training, soccer, diving, all sorts of things—makes it fun."
At night the kids live it up in their dorm rooms. The girls breakdance, whirling on the floor, just as they have seen it done on the streets in the States. Whatever the style of dancing, for the most part girls partner girls. As in Chinese society at large, there's little visible evidence of romance at the Beijing Gymnasium.
Tan, the team gray beard at 23, teaches the male divers pop songs he has learned during his years on the road. "I like Western music—Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston." he says. "And the McDonald's song: 'You deserve a break today....' " Xu judges the songfest as he would a diving meet, with cards and points. He may be stern at the pool, but he knows how to lighten up during nonbusiness hours.
Finally the long day comes to an end. It's 10 o'clock, and Xu says, "Lights out." The kids drop off and presumably dream of Seoul.
If it's surprising that Camp Beijing is a fun place, it's astonishing that the team from there is the most formidable in the world. In what would stand as the most stunning display of precocity in the history of the Games, the Chinese kiddie korps could win half of all the diving medals awarded in Seoul.
If it does, the credit will belong most of all to Xu. For three decades he has been a keen observer of diving, and he has developed a method that blends youth, hard work, acrobatics, martial arts and spiritualism.
In the 1950s, Xu, who's now 46, was a promising young athlete in Guangdong Province. "I decided to concentrate on diving in 1956," he says. "I was several times the national champion in the early '60s." An analytical student of his sport, he was primed to move into the coaching ranks when the Cultural Revolution began. "Suddenly there was nothing to do," he says. "From '66 to '68, I did practically nothing, because we weren't allowed to excel. I became depressed."
The sadness of those days couldn't extinguish Xu's passion for his sport. He became a one-man underground clearinghouse on diving science. "I would cut out anything I could find on diving—in newspapers, in books—and save it," he says. "I had clips on the Americans. I learned how dives were changing. I thought about how the new dives and innovations might apply to China."
When China was ready to reenter the international arena, Xu was uniquely prepared, and he was named national team coach in 1973. "From the start, we knew he was the man in Chinese diving," says University of Texas diving coach Mike Brown. "He'd come to the meets alone, without his team, but always with his video camera. He'd shoot dives, and he'd take pictures of equipment—trampolines, weights, stuff like that."
Xu says, "We needed all that information in the 1970s. We had nothing. We had to construct our own trampoline. I made the blueprints for all our equipment. We built weight machines. We even made our own diving boards."
Xu's handmade hardware served as the training ground for his idiosyncratic theories of diving. During his long years of contemplation, he had decided that there were physical and psychic aspects of the Chinese character that could be mined to create champions. "I thought Chinese diving could be tops in the world." he says. "I wanted to combine the many, many good things from other countries—the technique, the twists—with China's natural characteristics. We are small, active, flexible and hardworking. We have a national passion for acrobatics and for kung fu. I drew all these things into diving. We use the mental concentration of kung fu, and the somersaults and projection methods from acrobatics. Every time I went abroad. I learned something useful to add to these things. I learned about weightlifting, for example, and we became stronger. Chinese diving was so new in the 1970s that the divers were willing to accept all these ideas. They listened well, but we had no idea where we stood in the world."
Xu's early teams didn't blow anyone off the boards. "We could see they were good when we went to China for a dual meet in 1980," says the American champion. Greg Louganis. "They could spin like no one else. But they didn't know how to compete. They needed more time."
Louganis's coach, Ron O'Brien, who will direct the U.S. team in Seoul, says, "When I watched them back then, I said to myself, 'With experience they'll be tremendous.' Their success has come as no surprise to me."
That success began just before the 1984 Olympics, and the Chinese were favored to get several medals at those Games. Although Zhou Jihong won the gold in the women's platform and Tan was second in the men's springboard, their country's performance was a disappointment. But soon the Xu method began producing numbers of divers of extraordinary accomplishment. China's depth made it all but unbeatable.
Age has nothing to do with success in Xu's program, which emphasizes spinning and making virtually no splash upon entering the water. These are two things that come more easily to smaller—and therefore usually younger—divers. All that was needed was for the youngsters to have the will to compete, and this has become a characteristic of Chinese divers.
In the four years since L.A., China has broken the U.S.'s longtime hold on diving supremacy. In 1986 the Chinese won two world championships in the four Olympic events (men's and women's springboard and platform), and in '87 they won three of four World Cup titles. In May, at the McDonald's International in Boca Raton, Fla., they won all four.
Remarkably, several of the recent medal winners may not make China's traveling squad to Seoul. Xu keeps his own counsel, but some divers will certainly make the trip. They include:
•Tan. He has improved since L.A., and in January he beat Louganis, ending the American's six-year, 19-meet streak in international springboard competitions. At the McDonald's meet, Tan won again. "I only hope that I can perform my best at Seoul," he says, speaking in the modest manner that until recently was standard among Chinese athletes of even the loftiest attainments. "If I do, then we'll see." Louganis says, "If I miss a dive, Tan will be there. He rarely misses."
•Gao. She has been the best woman off the springboard for more than two years. In April she became the first female to score 600 points in the three-meter in international competition, an accomplishment akin to Louganis's breaking 700 off the platform in the 1984 Games. She's still the only woman to do it, and she has now done it three times. She possesses rock-solid confidence. "If I do what I can do at Seoul, I'll win," she says.
•Tong Hui. It's thought that he has been sandbagging 1988 and will make a triumphal return to the tower in Seoul. He won the last two 10-meter World Cup titles and dominated the '87 competition. He didn't make his team's trip to the U.S. this spring, and Xu explained that Tong had a minor injury. The inside word was that there was no injury: Tong was so strong off the tower, Xu needed to see no more to pick him for the Olympics.
•Xu Yanmei. Last year, at 16, she won the platform World Cup. This year she has finished behind some younger teammates in some meets but is still diving well. Her will is unshaken. "Before the important competitions, when we get together in Beijing, I always start to dive my best," she says. "I believe that will happen this year."
China's second entries in each event are known only to Xu Yiming. Strong performances have been turned in of late by Yingjian and Ni. Other top performers include Xiaodan and Li Qing, a 16-year-old female springboarder who has come up to Yanmei's high standard. But it's not inconceivable that a medal could go to an unknown, so quickly has Xu Yiming's method been turning out young champions.
Perhaps this kid is awakening just now, in the dorm of the Beijing Gymnasium. He makes his way to the soccer fields and kicks around a ball with his pals. They laugh and chatter and fall down and have a lot of fun. They're loosening up, preparing to beat the world.