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“Arduous” and “Oppressive”–the Life of a Chinese Athlete

It’s been a long time since I have watched the Olympic Games on American broadcast TV, and not CCTV5, the Chinese sports channel, and there are several things that I miss. I miss the 24-hour coverage of events and watching them in their entirety, not just highlight reels. I miss watching ping-pong and badminton. And I miss getting to know the Chinese athletes.

While we marvel at their achievements, it’s easy to forget that the life of an Olympic athlete in China is extremely difficult. The website Tech Insider recently ran an excellent (and a bit heart-breaking) series of photos of one of China’s “sports schools,” where future Olympians and professional athletes are trained.

The first time Susan Brownell walked into the gymnastics gym at Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School, in Beijing, China, she had to fight the urge to wince.

"You've got tiny little kids, who are basically in diapers, and it's amazing what they can do at that age," Brownell, an anthropologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, tells Tech Insider. "They get bent up like pretzels when they do flexibility exercises."

Shichahai is just one of thousands of intense sports-centered boarding schools around China. With sizable funding from the federal government, kids as young as 6 who show early talents in sports like taekwando, table tennis, gymnastics, and badminton train for years in the hopes of bringing money and honor back to their families.

For most, the dream dies early. But for some, it's the first step on the path toward Olympic greatness.

Aly Song/Reuters on Tech Insider

In the 2004 summer edition of the ChinaSource Quarterly, Kay Danielson wrote about an interview she conducted with a professional Chinese athlete. In it, she asked about her life and the challenges of being a Christian professional athlete.  We thought this would be a good time to revisit that article:

I recently spoke with a young woman who once played professional football and served on the national team. I asked her about the life of a professional athlete in China. Ms. Li (not her real name) was assigned by her leader to play football for the factory. After that, she was recruited to play on professional squads in two different provinces and, from there, she went on to play for the national team. “It was not my choice,” she told me. “My factory boss told me that I had to play football.”  She told me that this was a common route into professional sports ten years ago.

Another route into professional sports is the state-sponsored sports schools.  Scouts from the sports ministry or various athletic associations travel the country visiting schools, looking for future talent. When someone with potential is spotted, they are channeled into the national sports schools. This always means leaving their families and going to live at the schools which are usually located in distant towns and cities. If the school is close enough, they can go home on the weekend. If not, then they only go home for the holidays.

In recent years, as a result of the economic reforms, some of the athletic associations and professional teams have begun to recruit from the college and university systems.

Ms. Li highlighted two main factors that motivate young athletes. One is the desire to change their life situation.  Many, especially those from poor families or impoverished regions, hope that a professional sports career will bring them financial prosperity. It is possible to get rich in the Chinese professional sports world, according to Ms. Li, but only for the men. Between their regular salaries, product endorsements and sponsorships, professional footballers, in particular, do well. Another motivating factor for athletes is the chance to play on the national team and bring honor to the nation. As is the case with any country, athletes long to represent their nation at the Olympics and other international tournaments.

When asked about the life of a professional athlete in China, Ms. Li used two Chinese terms: jianku, meaning arduous; and yapo, meaning oppressive. “The life of the professional athlete is extremely difficult. The training is hard, and we must commit our lives to the sport. We have no free time, and we rarely see our families.  The team becomes our family.” The pressure to succeed is relentless, and the training is often excessive, even to the point of being cruel.

The difficulties persist once the athlete’s career is over as well. Because athletes grow up within the system of sports schools, they do not receive a good education, thus making it difficult to find work. The stars can get rich from endorsements and establishing their own companies, but the vast majority of “retired” athletes have a hard time adjusting to life out in society. They have spent their lives in a rigid, structured environment with little or no freedom or training in decision-making.

Ms. Li is a Christian, and I asked her about Christians within the professional sports world in China. She told me that although there are not many, the number of Christian athletes has been growing in recent years. Where, or how, does a professional athlete have the opportunity to hear the gospel, I wondered. She told me that, like other young Christians in China, many learn about the gospel from Christian parents or grandparents.  She also told me of a situation in which a foreigner was brought in to coach a team, and that foreigner was a Christian who was active in teaching his players about Christianity. She told me that while being a Christian professional athlete was difficult ten years ago, today things are much more relaxed, and athletes can be open about their faith.

According to Ms. Li., reaching professional athletes with the gospel is not easy. A major factor is the transitory nature of their lifestyle. Athletes are constantly on the move and have little time or opportunity to build lasting and stable relationships or connect with local fellowships. She also believes that the gospel is best preached from within, by Christian athletes living out their faith, being good examples and telling their fellow athletes about Christ. “It’s very difficult for those from the outside to be involved in evangelism with professional athletes.”

Finally, I asked Ms. Li how best to pray for Chinese professional athletes.  She again reminded me of how difficult life is for an athlete and that many are depressed and unhappy. (She used the Chinese word, kumen, meaning “depressed, dejected.”) She also suggested that it would be good to pray for the coaches and for government leaders, that they will pay closer attention to the life of the athletes and do a better job of preparing them for life outside the state-sponsored sports system.

Image credit: Chinese gymnast by Shella via Flickr.
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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