Beijing (dpa) – Winning her first Olympic gold medal was a huge relief to 15-year-old diver Ren Qian. That’s because she’s been training since age 3.
Ren clinched the 10-metre platform competition on Thursday, becoming one of the youngest medalists at Rio and bringing joy to a country bracing for a disappointing medal tally in the Summer Games.
China hasn’t finished below second in the medal standing since 2004, but is currently trailing behind both the US and Britain.
Born in 2001, Ren started training at age 3 in gymnastics at the Chengdu Children Sports School in southwest China. At 6 years old, she transferred to diving then joined Sichuan’s provincial team in 2012.
“I performed well today. I didn’t think too much. I cannot be nervous,” the composed and soft-spoken teenager told reporters.
Her triumph comes amid on-going controversy about what lengths Chinese sports authorities have taken to produce a large number of Olympic champions since rejoining the Olympics in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution.
There are around 2,200 dedicated sports schools in the country that train about 95 percent of Olympians, according to Chinese media reports. This number of schools appears to be significantly down from the 3,687 schools reported by the government in 1990.
Children are usually recruited from normal school or community sports teams and begin intensive training at around 6 years old. Critics say state-backed vocational schools leave so little time for academic curriculum that students have limited prospects.
Even if they make it to professional levels, by 2009 there were 4,343 unemployed former athletes with thousands more estimated to have joined their ranks since then, according to the state-run Phoenix Television.
China Sports Daily estimates 80 percent of retired athletes suffer from unemployment, poverty or chronic health problems related to overtraining.
Photographs of children crying or straining through exercises in sports school gyms have gone viral recently, sparking concern among both international observers and Chinese citizens about the cost of Olympic glory.
Facing declining enrollment, specialist sports schools are taking more steps to ensure young athletes have wider options and avoid injury, a leading coach told dpa.
“For young athletes, you don’t train them like adults because their hearts and body systems are still developing,” said Wang Shizhong, a graduate of Beijing Sports University and coach of 32 years who had guided stars including long-distance runner Wang Junxia.
“It’s also important that they enjoy their event, because that will determine whether they will be tough enough to keep training,” Wang added.
Yet many talented young athletes are choosing to not go down this path.
“I won’t do it. I’ve trained seriously before and it was way too tiring,” Zheng Ying, a former top-level junior soccer player in northeast Dalian province, told dpa.
“We spent every day with our coaches at the training centre. I thought that the coaches must have been more miserable than we were,” the 17-year-old said.
“If there were many different kinds of opportunities I might consider pursuing professional soccer, but going to sports schools means that there is only one road available,” said Chen Shuoshuo, 18, Zheng’s former teammate.
It seems the wider public is shifting away from obsession over gold medals, too.
Popular Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui did not aspire to become a professional athlete when she first started out. Her parents sent her to a sports school because they thought swimming would help reduce her asthma attacks.
Earlier this month, Fu won the hearts of millions in China and around the world with her goofy sense of humour and enthusiasm upon finding out that she qualified for the finals of the women’s 100-metre backstroke.
“I used all my mystic energy!” the 20-year-old exclaimed to a reporter. “I was so fast! I’m very satisfied,” she said.