Training Sessions on at Shishahai Sports School.-

The 550 handpicked students of Shishahai practise between three to five hours a day, DRIVEN BY DREAMS of Olympic glory. The school specialises in six Olympic sports: table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, volleyball, boxing and taekwondo, writes PALLAVI AIYAR.

A few miles north of Forbidden City, adjoining a flourishing bar and entertainment complex, is an unobtrusive, functional looking building. It is "Shishahai Sports School." This is a training centre that churns out Olympic gold medallists with regularity. At the last Olympic Games in Athens, athletes trained at this school won a total of five gold medals, three in individual and two in team sports. This makes Shishahai Sports School's Olympic achievements far greater, when compared to India's efforts in Olympics. In Athens, India — the only other country with a population comparable to that of China — won only a silver medal.

The 550 handpicked students of Shishahai practise between three to five hours a day, driven by dreams of Olympic glory. The school specialises in six Olympic sports: table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, volleyball, boxing and taekwondo.

Liu Hong Bin, the school's director, says that the students were aged between six and 22. However, in the gymnastics-training hall, head coach Wang Zhi Jian reveals that a large percentage of the kids were actually four. According to him, gymnasts in China start participating in competitions at the age of seven. They thus need a minimum of three years training.

Children line up obediently for practice, though the expressions on their faces were neither sad nor happy. There seem to be no allowances made for their age. Certainly, this is not the age for them to decide about their careers.

"Sacrifices are necessary to be a champion," says Liu Hong Bin. When asked about the fairness of a system that subjects children to pain and discipline at an age when they are incapable of making decisions of their own, he insists that all of Shishahai's students have a strong personal love for the sport they are pursuing.

"Perhaps at the beginning they may not be interested, but after a few years they definitely will be. If they don't develop an interest, they won't do well and will probably be thrown out of the school in any case," he concludes. This correspondent was asked not to question any of the students, since it would "disturb their practice."

The 2004 gold medallist in the men's pommel horse, Teng Haibin, started his career at Shishahai's gymnastics training hall, as did Zhang Nan, women's individual all-around bronze medal winner at Athens.

The athletes also get the full support of the government. Chinese flag adorns every training hall at Shishahai, underlining the nationalist spirit behind the schools like this. The reception hall is filled with old-style communist propaganda posters such as men working in mines and railroads. Former Soviet Union had a great impact on the development of China's sports system. Talent scouts identify future champions in primary schools. These children then undergo physical examination and are taken into training for appropriate sports according to their physical ability. Height is the key factor for volleyball, strength for weightlifting, agility for gymnastics.

For many of the parents from China's vast rural majority, the opportunity to send their children to a sports school is an opportunity to come out of poverty. Shishahai is one of three key professional sports schools in Beijing, which takes students from all over the country. The school has an annual budget of some $30 million, two thirds of which come from the government. "We have the full support of the government which means we can get the best training equipment, the best stadiums and sports fields and so our hardware is developed," boasts Liu Hong Bin. The coach, Wang Zhi Jian, also stresses the importance of government support to the country's gymnastic prowess.

"But in fact that's our big problem," laments sports historian Zhao Yu. According to Zhao, there is little popular support for the sport in China. Instead its sports system is akin to a government funded factory where the sole focus is on producing medal winners. Zhao gives the example of bicycle. He says that China has more bicycles than any other country in the world. It would be logical, therefore, to expect it to excel in bike related sports, which in fact is not. "We are not a real sporting country because we lack a popular base. Our success is artificially engineered from the top," he says. For 2008, Shishahai has developed what it calls an 8.6 programme: to have eight athletes participate in the Games and to win at least six medals. "It is natural for us to want to better our performance at the next Games," says a smiling Liu.

China began to participate in the Olympic Games only in 1984. Till then, International Olympic Committee's had recognised teams from Taiwan as the official representatives of China. But China had made rapid strides and by 1996 Games in Atlanta, the country had already made it to the fourth place, with 16 golds, in the medals tally. In Sydney, four years later, China finished third with 28 golds and in Athens, China's 32 gold medals took it to the second place, next to the United States.

There have been suggestions that China's success in the Olympics is due to its target of "soft sports," such as shooting and taekwondo as well as women's sports in general.

But, even this is changing. In Athens, Liu Xiang became China's first men's Olympic gold medallist in track and field, the glamour sport of the Games. Recently, Liu Xiang set the world record in 110 metres hurdles with a time of 12.88 seconds at a super Grand Prix meeting in Switzerland.

A decade ago, the Chinese were serious contenders in only a handful of sports like table tennis and diving. In Athens, however, they competed in all events except baseball and equestrian. In 2008, China plans to compete in all 28 events and is targeting 50 medals.

Olympic fever is palpable in Beijing, with gigantic clocks counting down the days and hours in every major street intersection. "To have the Olympics in one's own country is a chance that only comes once in a person's lifetime," says Liu. He adds, "Every Chinese, every Beijinger and every student at this school is hoping from the bottom of their heart for China to win medals and see the Chinese standing on the winning podium."

China boasts of some 3000 schools, like Shishahai, where over 300,000 select students spend their days in relentless training.