At a sports school in Lanzhou recently, a 22-year-old field hockey goalie named Cheng Qingxia sidled over to take a break after being peppered with shots at practice. "I enjoy having balls hit at me," she said. "It makes me feel like a soldier when I play. If the men can act like that, why can't I?" Then she removed the cap from a soft-drink bottle with her teeth.
The applicable phrase is chi ku: eat bitterness. "Chinese women are better able to eat bitterness and endure hardship than Western women," says Tian Wenhui, who heads the committee governing the network of specialty schools that produce roughly 95% of the country's elite athletes.
It was evidence of a taste for bitterness that persuaded the deputy coach of China's Olympic swim team to take a chance on Le Jingyi, the freestyle sprinter who should win at least two gold medals in Atlanta. When the coach, Zhou Ming, discovered Le, she was a scrawny nine-year-old whose lanky physique and oversized head earned her the nickname Bean Sprout. She couldn't swim particularly fast. But Zhou noticed that she showed up at the pool every day in spite of a lengthy bus ride from her home, and one day she trained with an open wound on her knee, oblivious to the sting of the chlorine. "That made a big impression on me," says Zhou. "I thought, 'Maybe we can keep her on the team for a couple of years and follow her progress.' She turned out to be a late bloomer."
And what a flowering. Now 21, the erstwhile Bean Sprout is known in international swimming circles as the Human Harpoon.
Le is from Shanghai, China's largest city. But the next great Chinese swimmer may be among the 800 million peasants who make up most of the country's 1.2 billion people and who are only beginning to benefit from the current economic reforms. A breathlessly rising standard of living should eventually bring better sports facilities and nutrition to small towns and the countryside. The incentives to participate are already in place: Women who excel in sports receive the same government support, bonuses (including up to $10,000 for an Olympic gold medal) and occasional endorsement opportunities as men—and more public approbation.
Susan Brownell, an American anthropologist whose book Training the Body for China examines sports in the People's Republic, has a theory to explain why the Chinese people are quicker to embrace women's athletic triumphs than men's. "It may have something to do with a history of honoring female martyrdom," Brownell says. "Chinese people are comfortable with the idea of their women suffering pain for the good of the nation—as opposed to the Western, Victorian view that it's the male's duty to work hard so women don't have to suffer."
As late as the middle of the last century the imperial government erected memorial arches to honor widows who committed suicide upon the deaths of their husbands. Further, Brownell says, in China there's no historical bias against women participating in sports. A poet of the Ming dynasty, writing of women playing a sort of kickball popular during the 15th and 16th centuries, described "the sweat on their powdered faces" as looking "like dew on flowers." But the male leaders of the time themselves forswore sweaty endeavor because their creed exalted the cultivation of the mind over that of the body. Thus woman and sport were an ideal match: second-class citizen, frowned-upon pursuit.
Yet in today's China, women who parlay their training and accomplishments into fame can leapfrog up the social ladder. Parents' preference for boys has resulted in a surfeit of eligible men, and thus women enjoy a buyer's role in the marriage marketplace, where status is even more important than wealth given the absence of great disparities in individual financial worth. And on the whole Chinese men don't consider athletic women unfeminine. After the women's volleyball team won world titles in 1981, '82, '85 and '86, plus an Olympic gold medal in '84, the players were showered with flowers and marriage proposals. While the Western media doted on the nuptials of a Lady named Di, Chinese television broadcast nationally the wedding of the volleyball team's star, Lang Ping, a spiker known as the Hammer.
In Atlanta, Chinese of both sexes will excel at sports that emphasize technique: diving, gymnastics, table tennis. But unlike the men, the women will also make their mark in sports requiring strength and stamina. The legendary Lang has taken over as coach of the volleyball team after it suffered a stretch of poor seasons, and the women should bag a medal again. The basketball team won a silver at the '94 worlds, beating out the U.S. women, who settled for bronze. The swimming team has restocked after the scandals of '94, and Chinese women are also likely to win medals in judo, soccer and the shot put.
But changes are afoot that could slow the rise of the phoenix. Now that world champion gymnast Mo Huilan appears on the cover of China Pictorial hawking a diet aid called Guo's Totally Nutritious Slimming Extract ("The authorized, nutritious weight-control food product of the women's gymnastic team of China"), eating disorders and an altered conception of femininity can't be far behind. Now that shopping centers are going up in most large Chinese cities, potential teenage swimming phenoms will face the same temptations to chow down on Big Macs (rather than bitterness) that their counterparts in Mission Viejo, Melbourne and Munich face. And now that girlish ponytails bob on the backs of even Ma's runners, as they did at the nationals in Nanjing, draconian coaching methods that seek to squeeze every last hundredth of a second from malleable peasants are in jeopardy.