China’s Sports System Delivers Party’s Glory, Individual Pain

By Virginia Wu
Virginia Wu
Virginia Wu
August 8, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
China's Wu Minxia competes in the final
China's Wu Minxia competes in the final of the women's 3m springboard diving event at the London 2012 Olympic Games in London on Aug. 5. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

China has long been known for churning out athletes for the Olympics and international sporting events, including hurdles gold medalist Liu Xiang, three-time world vault champion and gold medalist Cheng Fei, badminton gold medalist Lin Dan, and many, many others.

Other countries might be envious of China’s athletes, but perhaps the number of sacrifices they made to earn the gold medals may not be worth those singular moments of glory.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has established a demanding sports training system that includes numerous state-run athletic schools all over the country. Children with the qualities suitable for sports training are carefully selected and enrolled in these schools.

These children—some as young as 4 years old—are trained many hours a day in their respective sports, often while living away from their families.

The children who show exceptional talent are further selected for the provincial team, and the best of them advance to the national team, where they participate in world championships and later, the Olympics, where they are expected to bring home gold medals.

However, victory isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be.


Instructed to focus on nothing except sports, many Chinese athletes are deprived from a young age of their childhood, education, and family life. According to a report by Time magazine in 2008, 15-year-old runner Wang Ting, when asked what she does in her spare time, replied, “I run, and I sleep … That’s my day.”

The Time report also recounted an interview with 15-year-old female athlete Chen Yun, who trains in weightlifting at the Weifang City Sports School in Shandong Province.

When Chen was asked about her favorite sports and hobbies, she answered: “Weight-lifting. When asked if she likes anything besides lifting weights she again replied: “Weight-lifting” and looked nervously at two men standing near her, according to the Time report.

“Once, I liked to run in the fields near my village,” she began softly, prompting a propaganda official to step in. “But now, she prefers weight-lifting,” he finished for her. “Her goal is to become a star athlete and make China proud.”

Appearing visibly nervous, she said, “I prefer weight-lifting now. I want to become a star athlete and make China proud.”

Wu Minxia, a four-time gold medalist in the 3-meter women’s synchronized springboard, only recently learned that her mother had undergone eight years of breast cancer treatment and that her grandparents had died over a year ago. Her parents had kept the news from her until after she competed in the London Olympics so that she could concentrate on training.

Yahoo Sports last week quoted Wu’s father as saying that Wu’s success has come at the expense of her family life. “We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong entirely to us,” he said. “I don’t even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness.”


Without education or job training, many retired athletes have found it nearly impossible to make a living after sports. Time magazine quoted Xinhua, China’s state-run mouthpiece, and the China Sports Daily publication as saying that nearly half of the 6,000 retiring athletes retiring each year become unemployed. Nearly 80 percent of China’s 300,000 retired athletes are jobless, in poverty, injured, or even crippled from over exercise.

Even for world champions and gold medalists, life after sports is a struggle for survival. Ai Dongmei, the 1999 Beijing International Marathon champion, had to sell her medals in order to feed her family. Cai Li, a weightlifting champion, could not afford medical treatment and died of pneumonia at the early age of 33, the Time magazine report said.

Next … The Party’s Interests