Jin Ronghu, the table tennis coach at the Zhejiang school, must deal with Little Emperors and Empresses every day. For years China banked on the ability of its spartan standard of living—and the attendant willingness of its athletes to suffer hardship, to chi ku, or "eat bitterness"—to temper future champions. Now, instead of chowing down on bitterness, young people clamor for seconds on dessert. "I have parents who drop their kids off and wait for them all day," says Jin. "When it's hot, they want to bring the kids extra to drink. I consider that pampering."
Lang Ping is perhaps the country's most famous product of "hard training." Under martinet coach Yuan Weimin, Lang, who was known as the Hammer for her merciless spiking, led the national volleyball team to four world titles during the 1980s and the gold medal at the '84 Olympics. Last February a Hong Kong businessman bought out Lang's lucrative contracts on the U.S. professional circuits so she could return to coach a national team that, during the '90s, has been a chronic disappointment. But as a coach the Hammer is a soft touch, a sort of anti-Ma who has distanced herself from some of the very techniques that once turned her into the greatest woman player in the world. Lang's players work hard, sometimes training eight and nine hours a day, 6½ days a week. But they'll break to play soccer or basketball or attend a dance class, and they take the occasional day trip to the Great Wall, "I like to ask them what they think," Lang says. "I don't like players who just say yes all the time. Things are different now. Now you have to explain why you're asking them to do something."
As he speaks, Guo Qinglong gesticulates so emphatically and unrelentingly that you get the sense that if he were immersed in a pool, the secretary general of the Chinese Swimming Association could reset every record stripped from his swimmers for using drugs. Eleven Chinese swimmers were caught during 1993 and '94. That was more than half of all the positives that had turned up since drug tests in swimming began 23 years ago.
Guo has a litany of denials he calls forth with animated gestures. He denies that the seven Chinese swimmers who tested positive for the steroid dihydrotestosterone at the Asian Games last fall were products of a systematic doping program. He denies that officials of his federation sanctioned anything illicit to help a women's swim team that had hardly caused a ripple in international competition suddenly win a dozen golds at the 1994 world championships. He denies that drug abuse is more of a plague in China than anywhere else. These were the acts of individuals, Guo insists—athletes and, perhaps, coaches who were tempted by monetary incentives to use banned substances that are available on the black market. When you fling the doors open, as Deng has put it, "flies and mosquitoes are bound to come in."
Are airborne insects to blame? Or bureaucratic cockroaches? Scams take place at the local level all over sporting China. At the Shanxi Provincial Games last summer, a swim team representing one prefecture won $5,000 in prize money before officials discovered that the team included impostors, ringers from another prefecture. All told, 54 provincial title winners were found to have false identity papers, and the closing ceremonies were canceled to spare everyone embarrassment. On the other hand, the protestations of China's top swimming officials echo those heard from the sport's most prodigious cheats, the East Germans, some of whose trainers have wound up in China. The Chinese experienced the same sudden rise to prominence as the East Germans; the same confinement of their success not simply to women but to women sprinters, for whom power is more important than technique; the same deep voices and strapping physiques among female swimmers; the
same unexplained absences at certain competitions.
Swimming has a mythic place in postrevolutionary China. The day after Chairman Mao took a well-publicized dip in the Yangtze in 1956, thousands of people did the same thing. So there's additional sting to the country's loss of face at the Asian Games. After news broke of the positive tests, pictures of the disgraced swimmers appeared outside whorehouses in Hiroshima.
For a generally cloistered people, the Chinese have a surprising love for the foreign sport of basketball. Stanchions with backboards and hoops dot the countryside like mutant mushrooms. When NBA commissioner David Stern visited China a few years ago, as the Chicago Bulls were dominating basketball Stateside, he was introduced to a provincial official who brightened when informed of Stern's high office. "Ahhh!" the official said. "The Red Oxen!"
To the Chinese it isn't offensive to point out that they aren't particularly big or strong. It's a fact, one grasped so firmly by the Chinese Basketball Association that for a while league games took place with a shot clock shortened to 25 seconds (from the customary 30) to encourage players to take advantage of their natural quickness. Similarly, as recently as four seasons ago, players were awarded four points for every successful shot beyond the are after their team's fourth three-pointer in a game. Market incentives, after a fashion.
China nonetheless has the slowest low-post player on earth. Six-foot, eight-inch, 250-pound Zheng Haixia was named MVP at the women's world championships in Australia a year ago, and she was the primary reason China beat out the U.S. for the silver medal. Zheng, 28, knows of Shaq and Hakeem, and she knows that being huge can lead to celebrity, and celebrity can lead to wealth. She says that contract offers from clubs in Italy, Sweden and Spain have been faxed to her through the basketball association, but they have never been delivered. Still she says she would like to play overseas after the Olympics in Atlanta. "It's important for us to get more publicity," she says. "It acknowledges your role in society and your contributions to the sport.
"One minute more," Zheng says, her patience wearing thin with a photographer who has prevailed on her to pose.