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OCTOBER 2, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 13


Mark Leong/Matrix for TIME.
Many Shichahai athletes are driven not by patriotism but by the lure of endorsement money.

Sports Institutes Adapt to China's Me Generation

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Gang Xiangjie is a tiny boy with an oversized ego. "Yeah, I'm the best," the nine-year-old junior vault champion explains matter-of-factly, slapping chalk onto his callused hands during gymnastics practice. "I'll be at the Olympics one day." Childish confidence overflows at Beijing's Shichahai Sports School, where 300 of China's best young athletes are groomed for international glory. To date, the academy has lifted China's sporting juggernaut by producing 15 world champions, as well as Sydney gymnast Kui Yuanyuan. "This is the breeding ground of our Olympic heroes," says school official Wang Yian. "They help bring the nation together by making us proud of being Chinese."

Not that this generation of Little Emperors—the coddled offspring of China's one-child policy—is necessarily motivated by patriotism. "I want to win so I can make lots of money," says Wang Shuo, another preteen with attitude. Less than a decade ago, parents brought their children to Shichahai as offerings to the national sporting cause; now they're looking for endorsement contracts. The school has had to shift its motivational techniques to cater to this spoiled bunch. "Once we began emphasizing the child over the nation, our results were much better," says school principal Xu Guangshu. "It's easier for the children to understand working for individual success—not the glory of a bigger group."

Shichahai is divided into little fiefdoms, most noticeably in the cafeteria. Each athletic posse has its own territory: the weightlifters stake out the north end of the hall, where they carbo-load piles of flat bread and thick noodles. The table-tennis gang sits to the right, flicking shrimp shells at one another with quicksilver speed. Lanky basketballers hang out further down, their knees cramped against the low tables. Then there are the gymnasts, diminutive dynamos who swagger through the dining hall to demand a second helping of winter melon.

It is only during practice that this preternatural cockiness cracks. "You need discipline to become good," says gymnastics coach Wang Jujian. "You have to struggle before you can enjoy fame." As his stern-faced teacher glances over, gymnast Gang's bravado slips. "I am the best," he repeats. "But I know that I must work hard to stay that way." Suddenly, one of China's wannabe Olympians is simply a little boy standing forlornly in his Jockey shorts.

H.B.

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