China's National Gymnastics Centre: How Did China Get So Good?

Pages: 43 (12893 words) Published: June 20, 2013
On the walls of the huge, hangar-like building that is China’s National Gymnastics Centre in Beijing are words of encouragement. “Avoid bent knees, split legs, bent feet, land firmly and you can win gold,” reads one message. “Starting from nothing, we can forge gold, and the gold will shine,” reads another. The Chinese men’s gymnastic team did just that last week at the Olympics, ahead of Japan, Great Britain and the US. Those slogans could probably be seen as old-style Maoist indoctrination, especially when taken with the subtext, implicit in much Western sports commentary before and during London 2012, that all Chinese athletes originate from a conveyor belt churning out identical, soulless competitors. But do those words in Beijing actually differ from the “Go USA” signs displayed in American gyms, or the Union flags favoured here? It seems that words and sports take on another meaning in the context of China. Ask Western gymnasts who have been to the elite facility in Beijing, and they will tell you the training is the same as elsewhere, and rather than being products of a brutal sports machine, Chinese athletes simply work harder. Indeed, what we observed when we were given unprecedented access to the National Gymnastics Centre between 2009 and 2010 contrasted enormously with Western dogma. Our invitation to be the first Western photographers to enter the centre came after the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese head coach admired our previous work, but we think the decision to let us in was also prompted by a new confidence the 2008 Games had created among Chinese sporting authorities. They were comfortable with who they were, and felt ready to show the world a truly extraordinary and inspiring process. A country that one generation previously had only infrequently succeeded in world gymnastics was now dominating it. And the question being asked was: how did China get so good?

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Predictions relating to China are notoriously error-prone--just think of all the times when theimminent demise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been announced and then failed to materialize--but here's a safe one. Five months from this Sunday, when Chinese officials mark the first anniversary of 08/08/08 (the date when the world's eyes were trained on the Bird's Nest stadium gala that opened the Olympics), many commentators in the PRC and other places will be musing on the meaning of the Beijing Games. This would have happened in any case, but Zhang Yimou (who directed last year's Opening Ceremony and will be choreographing the PRC's 60th birthday part in October) is doing something to make doubly sure that the commentaries flow. As fond of sequels as any Hollywood director, he'll be back at the Bird's Nest on 08/08/09 putting on a lavish version of "Turnadot," the same Puccini opera that he once staged at the Forbidden City. But instead of waiting for another six months to pass and the first arias to be sung in the Bird's Nest Stadium (where the surreal soundtrack on my visit as a tourist last November was nothing but soft-rock Carpenters' tunes), I'm getting a jump on things by marking the half-year anniversary of the Games (it's been just over six months since the August 24 Closing Ceremonies) with this preliminary effort to consign the 2008 Olympics to history. I'll stress two things that stand out about its international aspects six months on. (For those interested in its important domestic impact, see the longer version of this essay that appeared earlier this week at the invaluable--to professional historians and also simply the historically-minded--History News Network website.) My first point is that the Games should be seen as a part of an ongoing, ambitious, and so far partially successful re-branding effort on the part of the CCP. China's leaders...

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