Gymnastics, like all other sports in China, operates under the “whole nation” regime. The hierarchy of the gymnastics can be simply divided into national and provincial levels.
The National Team and Provincial Teams
The national team is oriented toward sports elitism, whereas the main goal for provincial teams is to produce more medals and champions in national competitions, especially the National Games held every four years and one year after the Olympics.
Provincial teams will send some of their best athletes - mostly juniors - to the national training center selection camp, usually on a yearly basis. The gymnasts with great potential will be selected into national teams for training. Those gymnasts remain members of their home provincial teams, and their results will be counted toward their home teams in the national competitions. There are 2 annual national gymnastics competitions. The championship held in late May is the meet for gymnasts to unveil their new skills gained last winter - the winter training is traditionally the most important period for the national team to upgrade their difficulty levels. The nationals, held in late August, partially serves as the pre World Championship selection.
As the national team has the best training resources, the training and the opportunity to enlist the national team thereafter are the first steps for a gymnast to fulfill her Olympics dream, and pretty much a guarantee to bring out the full play of her potential. From a different perspective, one of the provincial team’s main goals is to train the gymnasts for the national team. Gymnasts not selected by the national team continue to train with provincial teams and participate in the national competitions till retirement.
The criteria for the Chinese national team, like in many other countries, cover aspects from physical structure, body form, coordination, strength, to fundamental skills. But the actual levels of selected gymnasts vary. When He Kexin was first selected into the national team, she could only perform tkachev on the UB; she was selected for her good forms on bars. In Tan Sixin and Zeng Siqi’s cases, however, they were both capable of a decent beam routine. Overall, the national team prefers the gymnasts with solid fundamental skills and good forms over difficulty of skills. As head coach Lu Shanzhen mentioned in more than one interviews that the difficult skills and varieties are easy to pick up once one has solid fundamentals. Although the coaching style and philosophy can be somehow different between the national team and provincial teams, the motto of the Chinese gymnastics training can pretty much be summarized in three words - “forms forms forms”. As explained in my previous blog entry, there are 4 coach teams, plus one special coach team on Vault in the national WAG team.
Gymnastics Operating Mechanism on the Provincial Level
There are about 15 provincial WAG teams across China that can send a competitive team into national games. The top 12 provincial WAG teams in the 2009 National Games were Shanghai, Guangdong, Beijing, Zhejiang, Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Guangxi, Yunnan, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Shangdong. Guangdong and Shanghai, especially Guangdong, have the best WAG provincial teams in China. Thanks to their strong provincial economy, the two teams are well funded, which significantly benefits their recruiting. The two WAG teams were loaded with talents in the last National Games.
Like the national team, each provincial WAG team maintains two tiers - team 1 (senior) and team 2 (junior). Each team has about 10 gymnasts, members of national team included. Juniors in the provincial team 2 are recruited primarily from local sports schools. The gymnasts age ranges are roughly 4-7 for sports school, 7-15 for provincial team 2, and 15-20 for provincial team 1.
Girls training in the local sports school have the sole goal of getting into the provincial teams. Some were not able to make to their own provincial team but recruited by other provincial teams. Both Li Shanshan and Huang Qiushuang were born in Hubei and trained in local sports schools, but recruited by Guangzhou provincial team.
As for the size of the gymnastics at sports schools, take Shanghai as an example, there are about 10 sports schools in different districts. Those sports schools are considered “amateur” sports schools in the sense that the girls trained there are not officially enlisted/salaried in provincial teams. In early 2010, there were less than 1,000 kids in district level gymnastics schools in shanghai; about half of them are girls. In other words, there were about 30-50 girls at each district-level sports school training for gymnastics. Considering that Shanghai is one of the best WAG team, my guess is that around 10,000 girls train for gymnastics in China (I couldn't find any office numbers). In contrast, there are 5.2 million(76% female) 6 year and older gymnastics participants in the States according to the statistics published on USA gymnastics website.
Like in many other countries, the top challenge in China is that a very limited number of kids are participating gymnastics. This is happening partly because of the lack of popularity of gymnastics in China - despite of gymnastics being the one of the most watched sports during the Olympics and household names like Cheng Fei and Liu Xuan. During one interview, Huang, the MAG head coach and the deputy director of National Gymnastics Administrative Center, mentioned that gymnastics talent famine was due to some structural problems (a limited number are training for the gymnastics due to the elitism in Chinese gymnastics) and infightings among teams at various levels (many talents concentrate in a few well-funded teams but are not well-trained due to limited resources).
Of course fewer and fewer families are willing to send their daughters to train for sports when these young girls could study computers or play piano instead. The number of kids training for gymnastics is even considerable less than many other sports, like table tennis and badminton, which also operate under the same “whole country” regime. Aside from the strict requirement on trainee’s physical structure, the hard-training stereotype associated with the sport also contributes to its lack of popularity.
On the potential solutions to the unpopularity of the sports, Huang proposed the idea of “happy gymnastics” training method. Li Ning , the former champions and one of most successful athlete-turned entrepreneur in China, is undoubtedly the pioneer in promoting “happy gymnastic”. Li Ning built two private gymnastics schools in Guandong province, which are different from the state-funded sports school. Recently Li Ning is planning to take over another successful gymnastics-oriented elementary school in Shanghai and convert it to Li Ning Gymnastics school No. 3. All those efforts, along with other attempts to build club-style gymnastics system (like the one in the States), will help Chinese gymnastics to establish a more diversified training system.
Also in the same interview, Huang mentioned that the reports on the paralysis injury suffered by gymnast Sang Lan and overly harsh training in provincial teams by the Chinese mainstream media years ago seriously hurt the image of the gymnastics. Huang emphasized that the protective training is strictly enforced and any abusive behavior, once confirmed, will lead straight to the termination of a coach.
Once recruited into the provincial team, a gymnast becomes a professional athlete and is paid a monthly salary. The monthly salary for WAG athletes in the provincial team 1 is in the range of 1,000-3000 RMB (200-500 USD). After enrolling the national team, gymnasts still get their salary from their home provincial teams with national team stipend. Other benefits of national team members include free electronic products from team sponsors like Samsung and a free round-trip air ticket each year for their parents to visit them etc.
After retirement, most gymnasts choose to pursue college education. Those who didn’t medal in any national competition must take the national college entrance exam. So besides training, the academic study is also major part of a gymnast's daily life. The retired athletes usually study in physical-education related majors and pursue coaching career after graduation. The gymnasts with national titles or medals from international competitions can pursue a degree in any college with tuition paid by the state. The lucky and talented few who became household names, like Liu Xuan, Yang Yun and Yang Bo, can even develop a career in the entertainment industry, become TV show host, actress and singer.
Links and Sources:
• Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008
• Economist: All that gold does not glitter
• Beidu Gymnastics Fan Club
• Chinese gymnastics website
• Jiang Yuyuan Weibo
• Huang Interview on Chinese gymnastics talent famine crisis
• Report on Chinese private gymnastics schools via Tencent