TOKYO – Six days a week since she was 12, with only a few days’ time away each year, Hou Zhihui has been driven by one mission: more than double her body weight in the air.
On Saturday, during the Tokyo Olympics, Hou’s dedication – separated from her family, through almost constant pain – paid off. She won gold in the 49-kilogram division and smashed three Olympic records, part of a fearsome Chinese women’s weightlifting group aimed at sweeping every weight class it contests.
“The Chinese weightlifting team is very cohesive and the support of the whole team is very good,” Hou, 24, said after winning gold. ‘The only thing our athletes think about is to focus on exercise.
China’s sports offering is designed for one purpose: to win gold medals in honor of the country. Silver and bronze hardly count. By raising 413 athletes in Tokyo, the largest number since the Beijing Games in 2008, China wants to top the gold medal – even though the Chinese public is increasingly wary of sacrificing individual athletes.
“We must resolutely ensure that we are first in gold medals,” Gou Zhongwen, head of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics.
The Chinese system is rooted in the Soviet model and relies on the state to examine tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2,000 government-run sports schools. To maximize its gold harvest, Beijing has focused on less prominent sports that are underfunded in the West, or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.
It is no coincidence that nearly 75 percent of the Olympic gold medals that China has won since 1984 are in only six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics and weightlifting. More than two-thirds of China’s gold comes from female champions, and nearly 70 percent of Tokyo’s delegation is women.
The weightlifting of women, which became a medal sport during the Sydney Games in 2000, was an ideal goal for Beijing’s gold medal strategy. The sport is a niche combat for most athletic powerhouses, meaning female lifters in the West have to struggle to get money. And with multiple weight classes, weightlifting offers four possible golds.
For Beijing’s sportszars, it did not matter that weight gain did not have a major attraction in China, or that the teenage girls who were in the system had no idea that such a sport existed. At the weightlifting national team training center in Beijing, a giant Chinese flag covers an entire wall and reminds the lifters that their duty is to be a nation, not to be themselves.
“The system is highly effective,” said Li Hao, head of the weightlifting group at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and current director of the Anti-Doping Division at the Center for Weightlifting, Wrestling and Judo at the General Administration of Sport. of China. “This is probably why our weightlifting is more advanced than other countries and regions.”
Most countries are eager for Olympic glory. The United States and the Soviet Union used the Games as an authorized Cold War. But Beijing’s obsession with gold is linked to the founding in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China, which is considered a revolutionary force that would reverse centuries of decay and defeat by foreign powers.
The first essay written by Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Revolution, deals with the need for a country that is dismissed as ‘the sick man of Asia’ to develop its muscles.
Politics, however, has hampered Olympic performance for decades. Because its rival Taiwan participated in the Games as the Republic of China, Beijing boycotted the Summer Games until 1984, when Taiwan was renamed the Chinese Taipei for the Olympic competition.
In 1988, China won five Olympic gold medals. Two decades later, when Beijing hosted the Games, it surpassed the United States in scoring the gold.
However, London 2012 was a disappointment and Rio 2016 a bigger disappointment as China was third behind the United States and Britain.
Back home, sports officials doubled their efforts, even though a growing number of middle-class parents were unwilling to give their children to the state to care for them as athletes. China was no longer a poor country, where the promise of full rice bowls made government sports schools attractive. Beijing has recognized that sport should not be reserved for elite athletes, that every child deserves to run, play and kick a ball.
30 July 2021, 20:00 ET
And there is growing recognition that tens of thousands of other kids for every Olympic champion would not make it. For these apostate athletes, life is often difficult: little training, damaged bodies, little career prospects outside the sports system.
Yet Beijing continued with its plans, manufacturing programs in taekwondo, canoeing, sailing and more. Children who were able to stack bullets on their palms were sent to archery. Country girls with impressive wingspan were focused on weightlifting.
“Children from rural areas or from families who are not so well off economically adapt well to the hardships,” Li, the Beijing sports official, said of the ideal weightlifting candidate.
Beijing’s focus has been on sports that can be perfected with routine, rather than those that involve an unpredictable interaction between various athletes. Apart from women’s volleyball, China has never won Olympic gold in a major team sport.
In Tokyo, Beijing’s strategy, up to Thursday afternoon, yielded 14 gold medals, which the United States and Japan took the lead. China won the first gold of the Games in the women’s 10 meter long rifle and its first victory. (The sports in which China dominates are merged in the first week of the Games, while the strengths of the United States are spread.)
But in some of China’s traditional strongholds, such as table tennis, diving and weightlifting, hopes of golden whips have not materialized. There were other disappointments before the Games started. A top swimmer has been banned for doping. The men’s soccer, volleyball and basketball teams could not qualify.
The sacrifices made by the Chinese Olympians are intense. Academic education in sports schools remains weak, and some world champions share dormitories with others. They are happy to see their family several times a year.
After Chinese elevator Liao Qiuyun competed in the 55-kilogram weight division on Monday, it was a journalist from her home province who sent a message to her parents.
For female weightlifters, the cost of China’s sports system is so much greater. While divers and gymnasts should share the proceeds of approval transactions with the state, they can at least capitalize on their success after retirement. But advertisers do not tend to attract female weightlifters.
In one case, a former national champion was so impoverished after retirement that she eventually toiled in a public bathhouse. She grew a beard, which she said was the result of a doping system imposed on her as a young athlete.
In 2017, after old samples were re-examined, three of China’s four women’s weightlifting gold were withdrawn during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 because the tests found illicit drugs.
Doping is high in weight gain, and China is hardly the only country caught. But an individual who makes the decision to take drugs is not the same as children being told by the state.
For the Chinese sports machine, all the hard years of effort can still be thwarted in the heat of the Olympic competition. On Monday in Tokyo, Liao, the 55-kilogram division lever, started the event as the reigning world champion. Two days earlier, in a lighter weight class, Hou had taken the gold.
Liao stepped on stage Monday with an expression that hovered between determination and resignation. In the final moments of the competition, a Filipino rival surpassed her to claim gold.
After that, Liao (26) stood crying and startled her breath. Her coach wraps her arm around Liao and sobs too. Finally, Liao, red-eyed, asked questions from Chinese reporters. A silver was a great achievement, one journalist said. Liao looked at the floor.
“Today I did my best,” she said. The tears flow again.
The trauma of all these years fighting against the unforgivable power of mass and gravity has weighed on Liao’s body.
“They’ve been there for years,” she said of her injuries. “Over and over.”
But unlike Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, high-profile Olympians who spoke of the emotional strain of so much pressure, Liao has not day after day, since she was a little girl, paid attention to the mental toll of what she has done not.
Liao sug. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. The National Games are coming, she said, and she would represent her home province of Hunan. Sports funding for the provinces of China depends in part on how things are going with the National Games.
The Olympics were over for her. She had a new job.
Amy Chang Chien reported.