China may have finished second in the Olympic medal table at the Tokyo Olympics, but it wasn’t for lack of trying to be number one.
Being pipped by the US with 39 golds to 38 on the final weekend can’t have been easy for a country with a huge state-backed operation which puts young athletes through brutal training to prepare them for the world sporting stage.
It is that, plus the population of 1.4 billion, which propels the Chinese time and again to Olympic success.
Communist Party-backed sports officials ruthlessly select and train competitors from an early age – with children as young as four being enlisted to train for the team.
China’s demanding state sports system has attracted criticism – but has also made it one of the most successful Olympic nations since it returned to the games in 1980.
The Chinese system is rooted in the Soviet model, which saw sport as a way of attracting prestige for the Communist system.
Gou Zhongwen, director of China’s sports administration and head of the Chinese delegation, left no doubt about the country’s goals, saying on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics: “We must resolutely ensure we are first in gold medals.”
Scouts sent out in search of future athletes
The state sends out scouts to hunt for tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2000 government-run sports schools.
Tests for selection see kids being given challenges such as press-ups, endurance running and bench presses that prioritise overall strength over specific skills.
Many Chinese parents used to send their kids to sports schools, lured by government subsidies and promising-looking careers for their children.
It doesn’t matter if the sports have mass appeal or if the youngsters have interest – if they are deemed worthy, it is their duty to perform for the sake of the nation.
Kids as young as four begin training
Disturbing pictures show children as young as four being trained at a Chinese gymnastics school.