By JOHN LEICESTER -- Associated Press
BEIJING -- The volleyballers are tall and lanky, the weightlifters muscular and squat, the gymnasts small and lithe, and the pingpong players just a blur.
The striking physiques at Beijing's top sports school are no accident. As a cog in China's sports machine, the school X-rays, tests, scrutinizes and carefully selects its students. The result: champions who bring glory to China and its ruling Communist Party.
Elitist, definitely. Coldly calculating, perhaps. But such schools have made China a sporting powerhouse, despite its developing-nation economy. They ensure Chinese athletes are favorites as big medal winners at the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Sydney Olympics.
Expect to see new faces. Many of the swimmers, for example, are newcomers. China's multilayered network of state-sponsored schools constantly supplies fresh talent, identifying, separating and polishing youngsters like prospectors panning for gold. Chinese athletes' shelf-lives often are short, but fading stars can be quickly replaced.
In the gymnastics hall of Beijing's Shichahai sports school, former Chinese stars are immortalized in photos on one wall. The hall itself whirrs with the toil that makes future stars: boys in vests and underpants and girls in leotards swing, tumble and somersault on beams, bars, vaults, rings and floor mats.
In one corner, Li Meng, a tiny 8-year-old girl with an upturned nose, cropped hair and twinkling eyes, looked part robot, part doll as she practiced back-flips over and over into a pit filled with foam blocks.
"It's not fun. My dad wants me to do it," Li complained. "He wants me to be a champion when I grow up. That's why he makes me train."
Coach Chen Jian chuckled when told of Li's complaints, saying the truth was she loves her sport. "Maybe her father forced at the beginning, but if now you told her to leave, she wouldn't," he said.
Picking kids young is a key strength of China's sports machine. Li said she started gymnastics at 31/2.
The Shichahai school, whose language lab overlooks the shimmering lake in Beijing's imperial-era Beihai Park, gets most children from lower-level state-run district sports schools. Others are picked from kindergartens and parents, like the mother of 4-year-old Gan Shipeng, also bring kids for tryouts.
"The coach was just saying he's very suited. He's got long arms and that's good for gymnasts," said Li Fuhua, a cashier, as Gan played himself breathless, rolling on mats and swinging from bars.
"It would be great if he became a member of the national team. That's what every parent wants."
Screening is rigorous. Kids' hearts, lungs, circulation and physiques are tested. Some pupils' hands are X-rayed to see how their bones are growing and to predict how tall they'll be. Parents of would-be gymnasts are checked: too tall and their kids are rejected. Table-tennis coaches look for speed, reactions and mental toughness. Weightlifters are often the children of farmers, because they "eat bitterness," meaning that they are used to hard work.
"To find gold you must sieve a lot of sand. You have to throw out the sand, the stones, leaving only the best," school principal Xu Guangshu said.
With each student's training costing $480 to $600 a year, "We can't let state funds be wasted. We have to go for success."
Top students -- as many as 60 to 70 percent, officials say -- move up to Beijing and provincial teams and, if they're good enough, from there to national teams. The others are sent home.
"For one would-be champion, there may be hundreds, thousands who are wasted," gym coach Zhao Gengpo said.
Shichahai has produced 20 Olympic, world and world-cup champions since the school opened in 1958. Its 300 students, all boarders, each pay $19 a year, plus $37 monthly for board -- affordable for middle-class Beijingers but pricey for poorer families. Scholarships are available for the outstanding.
Despite its mission and renown as a cradle of champions, the school has not been immune from the free-market changes transforming China. The government is reducing funding to Shichahai and other sports training centers.
Now the school runs paying classes during holidays and for foreigners, who hand over $40 a day, board included.
"We feel a sense of crisis," said Xu, the principal. Some schools might close "like companies going bankrupt."
In the meantime, the young athletes meet the demands of a difficult schedule, starting at 7 a.m. with 30 minutes of exercise and breakfast before academic classes at 8.
Slogans such as "Study diligently, train hard" are posted on classroom walls. China's red flag is painted above the blackboard.
After lunch, pupils sleep for a couple of hours before an afternoon of training. They then shower, eat and do homework before lights out at 9:30 p.m. The kids go home for weekends.
The regimen's tough, but officials seem to think it's worth it.
"In the past, people used to say China was the sick man of Asia, that Chinese bodies were weak," said Xu Qianhe, a teacher. "In the West, kids think of sports as a game. Our students think of the glory of the country."