These facilities—and others similar (though generally less lavish) to them in other cities—will keep the Chinese at the top of international diving for years to come. During workouts in Shanghai, seven-year-olds did handstands and double backflips off the 10-meter tower, entering the water as if sucked into a vacuum. "Chinese people do not have great stamina," says Yuan Xingxong, diving coach for the institute. "But we are quick and have slender hips, which is good for our sport. We look very carefully at body type before selecting our young divers, because if you're too tall, for example, you should be a swimmer. We look at the body size of the parents. And there are other ways to tell."
One of those other ways is to X-ray a youngster's wrists, which the Chinese—and some European sports experts—believe hold some obscure genetic key to a child's future growth. The same procedure is followed with potential gymnasts. The goal of the sports institutes—and every Chinese city has one—is to create elite-level athletes in each Olympic sport, and in a few sports indigenous to China, like wu shu ("martial arts") and tai chi. The athletes at these institutes, most of them of college age but some as young as six, train three to four hours a day and go to classes for four hours. The best of them are selected to train in Beijing with the national teams.
Without question, there is an elitist aspect to sports in China not only at these institutes but at all levels. Much time and effort are expended on the very few who rise to the top at an early age. But that will change. A nation of 1.1 billion people can't create sports facilities for the masses overnight. The people of China, accustomed to the glacial pace of their government, don't seem to expect things to be moving any more quickly than they are. In fact, they seem grateful for the gains that have been made.
This became clearer to us on our final morning in Shanghai, when we visited a public tennis facility, one of only five in this huge city. Of the nine courts available, six were in use, including one that featured a colorful foursome of septuagenarians. One of them had somehow acquired a Boston Red Sox cap, another a San Diego Padres cap. It's rare to see elderly Chinese engaged in a physical activity other than tai chi, and we asked one of the tennis players if he took part in other sports. Yes, he said, he liked to fish for carp, shoot pool and play golf, a game that has recently come into fashion in China. Fourteen courses have been built by foreign investors, and more important, Zhao Ziyang, heir apparent to China's No. 1 man, Deng Xiaoping, is an avid duffer. The discussion got around to the tennis player's occupation, and he hesitantly allowed that he was a government official of fairly high rank who was visiting from Beijing. He declined to give his name but said he was 73. Then he was asked whether sports like golf and tennis, aside from being inherently elitist, weren't also a colossal waste of space in a country with China's population.
He was comfortable with the question. "I do not believe these things to be a waste of land," he said. "A city cannot plan only with buildings. You need open spaces and grassland. We would like to see more golf courses, more tennis courts. But it will be a long time before these sports will be afforded by the people. We are still very poor." He smiled, displaying broken teeth. "Come back and see us again in a few years. I think you will find that many things have changed."
Many things already have.