China's Olympic goal: Dominate the medal count

LONDON – By now everyone should understand that China's sports machine is not going to slow. China's goal was never to build big just for the Beijing Games in 2008. The goal was to build big for Beijing, then dominate the world.

"The intention of the Chinese is to win every medal, every single medal," said Jeff Ruffolo, an American who has worked for the Chinese government to help plan several sports competitions including the 2008 Olympics.

"Watch what happens in Rio," added Ruffolo, referring to the 2016 Games in Brazil. "Watch what happens in 2020. The Chinese want to prove to the world that their system is the best system."

[ Related: USA looks to be the favorite to finish at the top of the medal table ]

Somehow people seem surprised that the Chinese are fighting again to win the medal count in these Olympics. But ever since China allowed its teams to compete in the 1984 Summer Games after a 32-year absence, the Chinese have gone from winning 32 medals in Los Angeles to 100 in Beijing. The churning of medals is so steady now that the Chinese are going to compete to win medal counts for the next several Olympics.

Potential Chinese Olympians are identified and groomed at a young age. (Reuters)
Potential Chinese Olympians are identified and groomed at a young age. (Reuters)

The stories about China in recent weeks have been shocking. Some news outlets have told of young rising athletes enduring near-torturous conditions at Chinese sports schools. There was also the tale of diver Wu Minxia who, upon winning the gold medal in the 3-meter diving competition, finally learned of her mother's illness and her grandmother's death last year. Though Wu later denied the story, saying she knew her mother was sick and her grandmother died, it seemed to show the worst of a country so obsessed with winning Olympic medals that nothing human matters.

Even in defending the system, Wu sounded like a lonely swimming robot, telling Agence France-Presse: "Parents seldom come to our training base. However, we are like a big family. We train together from different bases."

But the reward comes in medals. And medals in China are very important. As one Chinese journalist, who asked not to be quoted for fear of reprisals back home, said: "The gold medal is very important in China. It makes us feel strong."

Or as Ruffolo said: "It's national pride."

[ Video: China's Liu Xiang experiences heartbreak, then heroic ending in hurdles ]

A few years ago, an American table tennis player who grew up in China told me how she came to be a table tennis player. It was when she was young, around second grade, and one day someone from the government came into her classroom carrying a bucket and three table tennis balls. Each student had to toss the balls into the bucket. Those who threw two in the bucket were offered a chance to leave their school and go to one for table tennis.

The idea, she said, was that the children who could throw two balls in the bucket must have a good feel for the ball. That was all the sport's coaches needed. The rest: skill, determination and desire could all be taught later. All that mattered was the feel.

Taekwondo athlete Wu Jingyu is one of many Chinese gold medalists in London. (AP)
Taekwondo athlete Wu Jingyu is one of many Chinese gold medalists in London. (AP)

Ruffolo, who wrote a book on his experience working for the Chinese in 2008 called "Inside the Beijing Olympics," said China's sports officials search all over the country looking for children with athletic potential. Perhaps a few boys are kicking a soccer ball in a park or chasing each other on the sidewalk. A government representative might notice one who looks faster than the others. This will interest the government representative who will contact the boy's family to gauge its interest in sending the boy to a sports academy.

The academy will be near the child's house. He will train during the day, take classes and go home to his parents at night. If he excels in training, he will be allowed to participate in local competitions. If those go well, he might be moved to larger regional competitions where further success might lead to a spot in the national sports academy in Beijing, where he will be one of dozens training in the same sport.

"They look for diamonds in the rough," Ruffolo said. "They know it's a long haul and they want someone who can handle it. The No. 1 or No. 2 athlete [in the rankings] might fall down from that standing later. They look at the person who is fifth or sixth. They look at that diamond and say, 'He needs polishing,' He might not be ready for London so we will hold him for Rio.' "

The Chinese have no problem doing this, he says. The goal is to win medals and establish a long line of athletes ready to fill an Olympic spot if the other falters.

[ Related: Were Chinese diver Wu Minxia's Olympic medals worth the lie? ]

Once, Ruffolo spoke to a young tennis star who told him her whole existence is tennis.

"She lives in a bubble," Ruffolo said. "She has no life, but she knows if she doesn't do well there are 20 nameless, faceless people behind her."

And while similar systems exist in the United States, particularly in private entities like tennis academies, the scope is not as vast or as much of a national goal as China's. Since the Chinese care little about sports leagues, they keep their focus solely on the Olympics. They target international competitions like the Asian Games, World University Games and countless individual sports world championships, hosting a number of them in off-years between the Olympics.

This gives China's coaches a chance to watch their athletes competing in an Olympic-type venue. If, for instance, the divers don't perform well, the coaches will have time to make adjustments, perfecting their dives in time for the Summer Games.

Other countries can't do this. Once the U.S. hosted dozens of big amateur tournaments but such things aren't popular now with local officials. The cost of building or remodeling facilities to meet modern standards is too much. Few municipalities in America are willing to fund an international volleyball tournament, not when they are struggling to keep staffing schools or pay into employees' pension plans.

"China doesn't care," Ruffolo said. "In China, there is only one government and money is no object. They will build the facilities. It's no object to them. They will keep adding these events."

Since Ruffolo has worked for the Chinese government and still lives in China and still helps plan sports events for the government, his view on the effectiveness of the country's sports machine is obviously going to be optimistic. But there is also no doubt that China is moving quickly toward athletic dominance, especially in smaller, specialized sports that aren't well-funded in other countries, giving the Chinese an automatic economic advantage.

Four years after Beijing, the Chinese sports machine is churning. The question now is how much farther will it go.

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