- Chinese state earmarks potential champions from young age
- Youngsters are sent away to gruelling training camps
- Olympic champion Ye Shiwen said her extraordinary swim was a result of 'hard work and training'
By DAVID JONES
Just like China’s Ye Shiwen, East German Petra Schneider had astonished the world in winning the 400 metres medley - this time at the 1980 Moscow Olympics - producing a performance of such awesome power that her rivals (including Britain’s Sharron Davis, who won silver) seemed to be lesser mortals.
And as with 16-year-old Ye in London on Saturday night, so striking was Schneider’s superiority over young women who had trained equally long and hard that many observers wondered how she could possibly have been so much stronger, fitter and faster.
Winning at all costs: Children are put through their paces doing punishing exercises to toughen them up
Children are trained at camps where the word 'gold' is hung on the wall to make them focus on success
Sweat and tears: A young girl is pushed through a tough gymnastics exercise
This disquieting question cast a shadow over her achievement for 18 years. But then, during that unforgettable interview, in her cramped apartment in Chemnitz - or Karl-Marx-Stadt as it had been known when she was among the stars of the East German state swimming project - the five-time world record-holder finally came clean.
Having been identified as a potential champion as a little girl, she told me, she had been removed from school and placed in a ruthless training camp where she was identified by a number, Sportsperson 137, rather than a name.
There her every waking hour was devoted to bringing swimming glory to her country.
To increase her oxygen uptake she was forced to swim for hour upon hour in a vacuum contraption that sucked out the surrounding air; she was fed like a battery-farm turkey on a protein-rich diet; and, of course, she was injected with steroids - so frequently that, even then in her mid-30s, she suffered a plethora of health problems.
‘Sharron Davies was not racing against another swimmer that day - she was racing against a different species,’ she told me tearfully in an extraordinary mea culpa which later saw her ask for her world records to be expunged. ‘I was programmed to take the gold.’
Was the equally invincible Ye Shiwen similarly programmed? As with everyone who marvelled at the way she eased through the water yesterday, like a killer whale in her white cap and black costume, I hope — oh, how I hope — she was not.
Yet recalling the photographs Schneider had showed me of herself at a similar age, one well understands the fears voiced by America’s top swimming coach.
Indeed, they must have flashed through the minds of even the most casual spectator yesterday, so much stronger did she look than the young women beside her.
Ye Shiwen astounded the swimming world by knocking more than a second off the world record for the 400m individual medley
Mission accomplished: Miss Ye poses with her gold medal on the podium. Ye insists that her 'results come from hard work and training'
Ye Shiwen possesses that same masculine, almost wall-like figure; the same impossibly wide shoulders and huge, rounded thighs; the same armchair-leg calves. Rebecca Adlington is a strong woman, to be sure, but she still looks feminine; Ye, though barely out of adolescence, appears androgynous.
China’s recent swimming history mitigates against Ye, too.
Ye Shiwen was picked out because she had an unusually masculine physique with extremely large hands and long limbs
For during recent years its swimmers and coaches have been caught cheating so many times it is difficult to keep count - and it has modelled its draconian training system on precisely that which produced Schneider and other turbo-charged East Germans before the Iron Curtain fell.
It began in the Eighties when, determined to end the nation’s perennial humiliation at major athletics and swimming championships, China’s Communist regime decreed that a generation of future champions must be harvested and honed.
To that end, school teachers were ordered to scrutinise their pupils for signs of natural sporting ability and report any child with obvious potential to regional coaches who would install them in one of 3,000 new state training camps.
According to her mother, Qing Dingyi, as quoted by the Chinese state media, little Ye ‘expressed a wish to become a swimmer at the tender age of seven’.
In truth, she was picked out because she had an unusually masculine physique with extremely large hands and long limbs: attributes at first thought best suited to a career in track and field.
Young boys and girls are put through their paces at the Chen Jinglun Sports School, the alma mater of Ye Shiwen
The school also trained Sun Yang, who won the 400m freestyle at London 2012
After being whisked away from her modest two-bedroom apartment, in Hangzhou, a city of 6.2 million, and installed into the Chen Jingluin sports school, however, it was decided she would be best suited to swimming, and by 11 she had won her first major junior championship.
Her mother insists she and her husband, a manual worker, had always impressed on her that ‘results are not important, but you should always enjoy the taking part’. One doubts she dares voice this opinion in the presence of her daughter’s coaches.
In swimming, as in most other Olympic sports, they enforce a regime so relentlessly harsh that it has been compared, by those few Western observers who have managed to penetrate the obsessive secrecy with which it is guarded, to that in some 19th-century prisons.
Indeed, after being shown how China’s child gymnasts are trained some years ago, in his capacity as an Olympic observer, Britain’s Olympic gold-winning oarsman Sir Matthew Pinsent - a man who knows a thing or two about pushing the human body to its limits - pronounced it a ‘pretty disturbing experience’.
Practice makes perfect: Children are put through their paces in a training session at Chen Jinglun Sports School
Some have likened the strict training regime to life in '19th-century prisons'
Children who our own sports authorities would deem far too young even to countenance focusing seriously on one sport, let alone be taken away from their parents and billeted in these boot-camps, had been driven so hard that they wept, and one claimed to have been beaten by his coach.
The International Olympic Committee promised then to investigate his claims but seven years on there is no evidence that anything has remotely changed.
Only last January harrowing photographs were posted on the internet showing Chinese children crying in pain as they were put to work.
In case they had forgotten why they were there, a large sign on the wall reminded them. ‘GOLD’ it said simply.
Virtual brainwashing of this sort is another feature of the state sports project, whose charges are taught by rote that their mission in life is to beat the Americans and all-comers to the top of the podium.
Their child stars of the future are also taught from the earliest age to deliver vapid answers to media questions - though there are signs that the current generation of Olympians, emboldened and awakened, perhaps, by increasing contact with the West via social media websites, are starting to rebel.
Indeed, this week one of Ye’s swimming team-mates, 23-year-old Lu Ying, risked serious repercussions back in Beijing by attacking China’s grindingly repetitive coaching regime and saying how much she preferred the freer, more enjoyable system in Australia, where she was permitted to train prior to the Games.
Recently, other former Chinese athletes have broken ranks, describing how they were so rigidly programmed in the sports camps that they could barely fend for themselves when their athletic careers ended, much less find jobs and integrate with their peers.