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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 August 2007, 23:36 GMT 00:36 UK
China's Olympic hopefuls go for gold
In the first of a series of features to mark one year to go before the Beijing Olympics, the BBC's Michael Bristow finds China determined to win gold on home soil.

Young gymnasts at the Shichahai Sports School
The school is training some of China's best young sporting talent

At Beijing's Shichahai Sports School, children as young as six are training hard to be the Olympic stars of tomorrow.

Along with several thousand others, the school is part of a sports machine that aims to bring glory to China through sporting success.

And success comes no more glorious than the Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing next year.

Although it plays down the issue, China hopes to win as many gold medals as possible on home soil.

'Very tiring'

Shichahai, one of China's top sports schools, helps find and develop China's future sportsmen and women.

It has nine disciplines, including gymnastics, table tennis, volleyball and badminton.

In the school's large, well-equipped sports halls, children spend hours perfecting their talent with the help of professional coaches.

To put it simply, China's main aim is to be number one in the gold medal table at the Beijing Olympics
Wu Ping
Sport analyst

Youngsters are either recruited by a network of scouts or brought to the school by parents eager to enrol their children.

Successful graduates go on to become paid members of provincial and then national teams.

Full-time pupils live at the school and face the difficult task of balancing their particular sport with ordinary classes.

"I find it very tiring here - mentally and physically," said 14-year-old Liu Ziyan, one of the school's brightest table tennis prospects, during a practice break.

"We train every morning and afternoon, and sometimes if I feel that's not enough I will do extra training in the evening."

Critics say institutions such as Shichahai push pupils too hard, but that claim is denied by the school's vice-principal, Liu Jun.

"We provide our younger students with 'life teachers' who organise entertainment events and look after them so they don't feel lonely," he says.

Winning, he adds, is not our sole aim. "We are also serving society by producing excellent people, and not just in sport," says vice-principal Liu.

But Wu Ping, a former writer for China's influential newspaper Titan Sports Weekly, thinks Chinese sports leaders are deliberately playing down their ambitions.

"To put it simply, China's main aim is to be number one in the gold medal table at the Beijing Olympics," said Ms Wu, now a research fellow at Bedfordshire University in the UK.

They are targeting sports where they hope to have most success, she says.

Inferiority complex

There are two main reasons why China is obsessed with being the world's top sporting power.

Firstly, Chinese communists have always equated sporting achievement with national success and ideological superiority, says Ms Wu.

Secondly, China, which once thought of itself as the centre of the world, was colonised by the West and Japan in the recent past.

Feng Kun
Ex-pupil Feng Kun led the volleyball team to Olympic gold in 2004

Winning the most gold medals in Beijing next year will go some way to alleviating China's sense of inferiority, according to Ms Wu.

Most Chinese leaders, however, deny they have such high hopes.

Xu Kuangdi, a senior official in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, believes Olympic success is not of over-riding importance.

"I think it will be a quite satisfactory result if our country can enter the top three of the gold medal tally at the 2008 Beijing Olympics," he said earlier this year.

But officials were not as guarded immediately following the 2004 Athens Olympics, where China came second in the gold medal table with 32. The US won 35.

Immediately after the event, Yang Shu'an, a vice-president of the Beijing games organising committee, said China's task was to "challenge the USA's dominant position".

And it is clear from a tour of Shichahai that winning is very important to those who run the school, which has produced several Olympic winners.

Feng Kun, captain of the gold-medal winning women's volleyball team in Athens, graduated from Shichahai and has coached there.

In most sports halls, Olympic banners urge students on towards Olympic glory, some using the language of war.

Photographs of former winners are plastered over walls.

And when the BBC asked a group of young gymnastics aged six to 10 what they hoped to be when they grew up, the answer was unanimous.

"We want to be champions," they said without hesitation. Perhaps at a future Olympics, they will be.

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