Olympic dreams for China's young athletes
By CNN's Lisa Rose Weaver
(CNN) -- It's a touch grim in the Shi Shahai Sports School in Beijing one muggy July afternoon.
About 40 pre-teens -- from about 7 to 10 years old -- have begun their afternoon workout.
In one corner little girls in colorful leotards stretch impossibly with a minimum of intervention by their coaches.
One little boy -- like many, in their underwear instead of gym uniforms -- whimpers as a coach bears down on his legs to force them as far apart as flexibility will allow.
Somewhat older boys do full circles on a high bar until the coach spotting them tells them to release their grip, and off they go flying into a deep bed of soft Styrofoam strips below.
After every dismount, after every back-flip these young athletes glance expectantly at their coaches-either for approval or correction -- it's not always clear which.
The young athletes are training for an upcoming national competition, but in 7 years one or two of them may be good enough to compete in the 2008 Olympics.
State sponsored sports system
Young athletes sailing through the air against a background of a large Chinese flag hung on the wall, as the coaches here speak of the superiority of a state sponsored sports system.
"Our system of government sponsorship trains them from the time they're very little until they become successful athletes," says Zhang Yang, a coach at Shi Shahai.
"Take the Sydney Olympics for example. Among 28 gold medals won, we did a statistical breakdown of the countries. We found that more than 90 percent of them [medallists] came from this kind of system. This system, which has more intensive training, is more likely to produce better results," she says.
But the reality of full state support isn't absolute for all athletes.
China's market reforms force state run entities to generate their own incomes, and this top notch sports school is no exception.
Many of the young athletes here have to pay fees to cover a portion of their costs.
That leaves athletes like Wang Shuo, a 10 year old gymnast, stuck in the middle of China's shifting sports system.
He's good enough to be at Shi Shahai, but still too young and unproven to benefit either from full state support or commercial sponsorship -- itself a recently developed industry generally reserved for much older athletes.
So until then, his parents are paying a quarter of the family's income to keep Wang in training.
"Maybe the school would reduce his tuition, if he's really got promise as an athlete. But it all depends on whether the state can support his training, on our financial ability, and most importantly, on Wang Shuo's own ability," says Wang Weiyuan, Wang's father.
"But even if I had all the money in the world, it wouldn't do any good if he's not up to the task."
At home, Wang's parents try to instill a sense of balance in a life otherwise focused on gymnastics.
Aches and pains
From the time he was 3, Wang, like many young athletes, began sleeping at the various sports schools he has attended. He comes home on the weekends only, and his mother makes a 40 minute bicycle ride across town to pick him up and bring him back.
Although Wang is clearly the star of the family, his mother says she's strict with him, "because he could talk his way out of anything, he's so smart."
Wang Shuo shows his calloused hands to a visitor, explaining how one workout injury resulted in peeling back several layers of skin from his palm. Then there was the time he hit his head on the parallel bars -- his favorite routine -- and the time he pulled an Achilles tendon.
"I've got all the aches and pains someone could have in 7 years," Wang shrugs nonchalantly. "It's only 7 or 8 more years to go."
Showing his medals and awards, the boy is reserved about their significance.
He doesn't wear medals around his neck, although he has several from national competitions.
"Everyone in the neighborhood here knows I'm a gymnast anyway, so there's no need to wear them. Medals are just medals -- they don't represent the person," he says.
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