The Chinese Sports Machine’s Single Goal: The Most Golds, at Any Cost


TOKYO — Six days a week since she was 12 years old, with only a few days of time away each year, Hou Zhihui has been driven by one mission: heaving more than double her body weight into the air.

On Saturday, at the Tokyo Olympics, Hou’s dedication — sequestered from her family, dogged by near constant pain — paid off. She won gold in the 49-kilogram division and shattered three Olympic records, part of a fearsome Chinese women’s weight lifting squad that aimed to sweep every weight class it was contesting.

“The Chinese weight lifting team is very cohesive, and the support from the entire team is very good,” Hou, 24, said after winning gold. “The only thing we athletes think about is focusing on training.”

China’s sports assembly line is designed for one purpose: churning out gold medals for the glory of the nation. Silver and bronze barely count. By fielding 413 athletes in Tokyo, the largest number since the Beijing Games in 2008, China aims to land at the top of the gold medal count — even if the Chinese public is increasingly wary of the sacrifices made by individual athletes.

“We must resolutely ensure we are first in gold medals,” Gou Zhongwen, the head of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics.

Rooted in the Soviet model, the Chinese system relies on the state to scout tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2,000 government-run sports schools. To maximize its golden harvest, Beijing has focused on less prominent sports that are underfunded in the West or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.

It’s no coincidence that nearly 75 percent of the Olympic golds China has won since 1984 are in just six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics and weight lifting. More than two-thirds of China’s golds have come courtesy of female champions, and nearly 70 percent of its Tokyo delegation are women.

Women’s weight lifting, which became a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games, was an ideal target for Beijing’s gold medal strategy. The sport is a niche pursuit for most athletic powerhouses, meaning that female lifters in the West must scramble for funding. And with multiple weight classes, weight lifting offers up four potential golds.

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For Beijing’s sports czars, it didn’t matter that weight lifting has no mass appeal in China or that the preteen girls funneled into the system had no idea that such a sport even existed. At the weight lifting national team’s training center in Beijing, a giant Chinese flag covers an entire wall, reminding lifters that their duty is to nation, not to self.

“The system is highly efficient,” said Li Hao, the head of the weight lifting squad at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and the current director of the antidoping department at the Center for Weight Lifting, Wrestling and Judo at the General Administration of Sport of China. “It’s probably why our weight lifting is more advanced than other countries and regions.”

Most countries are eager for Olympic glory. The United States and the Soviet Union used the Games as a proxy Cold War battleground. But Beijing’s obsession with gold is tied up in the very founding in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China, which was seen as a revolutionary force that would reverse centuries of decay and defeat by foreign powers.

The first essay that Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist revolution, wrote was about the need for a country dismissed as “the sick man of Asia” to develop its muscle.

For decades, though, politics got in the way of Olympic achievement. Because its rival Taiwan competed in the Games as the Republic of China, Beijing boycotted the Summer Games until 1984, when Taiwan was renamed Chinese Taipei for Olympic competition.

In 1988, China won five Olympic golds. Two decades later, when Beijing hosted the Games, it surpassed the United States to top the gold count.

London 2012, though, was a letdown and Rio 2016 a bigger disappointment, as China came in third behind the United States and Britain.

Back at home, sports officials redoubled their efforts, even if a growing number of middle-class parents were unwilling to hand their children to the state for grooming as athletes. China was no longer a desperately poor country where the promise of filled rice bowls made government sports schools alluring. Beijing acknowledged that sports shouldn’t be reserved for elite athletes, that every child deserved to run, play and kick a ball.

And there was growing recognition that for every Olympic champion, tens of thousands of other children would not make it. For these castoff athletes, life is often difficult: little education, damaged bodies, few career prospects outside the sports system.

Still, Beijing continued with its plans, manufacturing programs in taekwondo, canoeing, sailing and more. Children who could stack bullets on the palms of their hands were dispatched to archery. Country girls with impressive wingspans were directed to weight lifting.

“Children from rural areas or from families that are not so good economically, they adapt well to the hardships,” Li, the Beijing sports official, said of the ideal candidate for weight lifting.

Beijing’s focus has been on sports that can be perfected with rote routines, rather than those that involve an unpredictable interplay of multiple athletes. Aside from women’s volleyball, China has never won Olympic gold in a large team sport.

In Tokyo, Beijing’s strategy had delivered, through midday Thursday, 14 gold medals, edging out the United States and Japan for the lead. China captured the first gold of the Games, in the women’s 10-meter air rifle, and scored its first fencing victory. (The sports in which China is dominant are clustered in the first week of the Games, while the United States’ strengths are spread out.)

But in some of China’s traditional strongholds, like table tennis, diving and weight lifting, hopes of golden sweeps did not materialize. There were other disappointments before the Games began. A top swimmer was banned because of doping. The men’s soccer, volleyball and basketball teams failed to qualify.

The sacrifices made by China’s Olympians are intense. Academic instruction in sports schools remains paltry, and some world champions share dorm rooms with others. They are lucky to see their family a few times a year.

After the Chinese lifter Liao Qiuyun competed in the 55-kilogram weight division on Monday, it was a journalist from her home province who passed her a message from her parents.

For female weight lifters, the costs of China’s sports system are that much greater. While divers and gymnasts must share proceeds from endorsement deals with the state, at least they can leverage their success after retirement. But advertisers don’t tend to be drawn to female weight lifters.

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In one case, a former national champion was so impoverished after retirement that she ended up toiling in a public bathhouse. She grew a beard, which she said was the result of a doping regimen forced upon her as a young athlete.

In 2017, after old samples were re-examined, three of China’s four women’s weight lifting golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were revoked because the tests found banned substances.

Doping is rampant in weight lifting, and China is hardly the only country to have been caught. But an individual making the decision to take drugs is not the same as children being directed to do so by the state.

For the Chinese sports machine, all those punishing years of effort can still be foiled in the heat of Olympic competition. On Monday in Tokyo, Liao, the lifter in the 55-kilogram division, began the event as the reigning world champion. Two days before, in a lighter weight class, Hou had taken the gold.

Liao marched onto the stage on Monday with an expression that hovered between resolve and resignation. In the last moments of competition, a Philippine rival surpassed her to claim gold.

Afterward, Liao, 26, stood crying, her breath jagged. Her coach wrapped her arm around Liao and sobbed, too. Eventually, Liao, red-eyed, took questions from Chinese reporters. A silver was a great achievement, one journalist said. Liao looked at the floor.

“Today, I did my best,” she said. The tears flowed again.

The trauma of all those years fighting the unforgiving force of mass and gravity weighed on Liao’s body.

“They’ve been there for years,” she said of her injuries. “Over and over again.”

But unlike Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, high-profile Olympians who have spoken of the emotional strain of so much pressure, Liao did not address the mental toll of what she has done, day after day, since she was a little girl.

Liao sighed. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. The National Games were coming up, she said, and she would be representing her home province of Hunan. Sports funding for China’s provinces depends in part on how each does in the National Games.

The Olympics were over for her. She had a new job to do.

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.


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