The 2012 Olympics have just begun, and the rivalry between the United States and China is heating up fast. The Chinese men's gymnastics team won big, and weightlifter Li Xueying took home gold, as did Ye Shiwen -- the 16-year-old swimmer who has been accused of doping to improve her performance. The United States has plenty to brag about as well: Swimmer Michael Phelps won gold this week, making him the most decorated Olympian ever, and the women's gymnastics team brought home its first gold medal since 1996.
With the race to national glory neck-and-neck, Foreign Policy decided to take a look at how China prepares its champions. In a country where promising athletes start dedicated training regimens at very young ages, Chinese competitors are often even younger than you might think. Children are monitored for signs of talent: As Ye, the 16-year-old gold medalist in this year's 400-meter swimming medley, explained to the Guardian, she started swimming at age 6 because her "teacher spotted she had big hands." Here, we take a look at the type of training Chinese athletes receive before making it to the international stage.
Above, a young Chinese gymnast trains at a special sports school in Hefei, Anhui province, on April 7, 2012. Potential gymnasts embark on a grueling schedule, with schooling and family taking a back seat to eight hours of training, six days a week. Quitting the rigid system, in which the state has invested more than $4.5 billion, is difficult.
Some Chinese officials take the Olympic rivalry quite seriously. "In the culture war between China and the U.S., in the culture part, China is very weak. USA always is leading," Wei Jizhong, a Chinese member of the Olympic Council of Asia, told the Denver Post last month. "In culture, you have theater, music; China cannot win. The only way China can compete with the USA is sports."
Many promising future bearers of this sporting legacy attend boarding schools where they can focus solely on their athletic training. A headmaster of one of these schools told NPR in 2008, "Our Chinese sports system is like a pyramid. We're the base, the fattest part of the pyramid. The middle of the pyramid is the professional provincial teams, and the national team is the apex.… Our main role is to choose future athletes."
Above, a young Chinese gymnast trains at a special sports school in Hefei on April 7, 2012.
The state-sponsored sports system has been the most successful in disciplines like gymnastics and diving, where youth and rigorous training programs are a particular advantage. "Our system of government sponsorship trains them from the time they're very little until they become successful athletes," Zhang Yang, a coach at Shi Shahai, a sports school for young athletes, told CNN in 2001.
Above, a young gymnast works out in Hefei on March 10, 2010.
For many families, raising a successful athlete is a financial goal as well as an athletic one. China has spent billions of dollars on generating Olympic gold medals, and it can pay off personally too. An Olympic gold medalist can earn up to 1 million yuan ($156,700) in prize money from the government. Above, a boy practices on the rings during his daily training at the Hubei Provincial Gymnastic Center on Aug. 9, 2007, in Wuhan, central China. About 40 young athletes ranging in age from 7 to 13 practice at the center in hopes of one day competing in the Olympic Games.
China Photos/Getty Images
Still, Beijing has faced criticism for its harsh training regime for young athletes, including notably a rare moment of candor from a Chinese athlete in London. Above, a young Chinese gymnast trains in Hefei on April 7, 2012.
Some sports are more stressful on young bodies than others. Above, a Chinese boy practices his weightlifting form at a training school in Jinjiang, in south China's Fujian province, on July 22, 2011.
The long, grueling practices aren't always fun. At Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School, a sports-focused training center in south China's Fujian province, about 100 kids between ages 4 and 9 spend hours every day at the gym. One boy told NPR in 2008, "I've trained until I cried many times. Sometimes we have to stand on our hands for half an hour."
Above, a Chinese boy practices weightlifting at the training school in Jinjiang on July 22, 2011.
In a profile of Yao Ming for the New Yorker, Peter Hessler described recruitment for Chinese sports, saying, "The method of early recruitment is a product of China's inability to provide every public school with coaches and sports facilities." Above, a young Chinese gymnast trains at a special sport school in Hefei on July 22, 2011.
The schools themselves gain renown through the accomplishments of their graduates, with the most successful centers attracting students from around the country. Above, a child practices during his daily diving training at the Hubei Provincial Diving School on Aug. 8, 2007, in Wuhan. Chinese Olympic gold medalists Fu Mingxia and Xiao Hailiang graduated from this school, and about 30 young athletes currently practice diving there with the hopes of competing in the Olympics.
China Photos/Getty Images
The results have been impressive. As a sports consultant told the Daily Mail, China's system "is a pipeline like no other in the world.… The athlete pool is so vast, so alive with skilled young talent that there are always others pushing through the pipeline. You just have to get better or get out of the way."
Above, a child practices at the Hubei Provincial Diving School on Aug. 8, 2007, in Wuhan.
China Photos/Getty Images
Past controversies have done nothing to dent the state-sponsored system. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Aug. 22, 2008, that it had asked the International Gymnastics Federation to re-examine claims that Chinese gold medal winner He Kexin was not old enough to have competed in the 2008 Olympics. Her passport said she was 16, but local newspapers had previously published a birthday that would have made her 14, prompting suspicions. The IOC ultimately concluded there wasn't sufficient proof to take punitive action.
Above, a young girl trains on the balance beam at the Beijing Shichahai sports school in the Chinese capital on Aug. 21, 2008.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images