When a teacher from the Western District Spare-Time School, one of the eight such schools in Beijing, asked Liyin's parents for permission to enroll her, it was a proposition they couldn't refuse because the Communist Party has decided that sports is one of the best ways to prove that China has arrived in the modern world. China's stunning 15-gold, 32-medal performance in 1984 in Los Angeles, where it made its first appearance in the Olympic Summer Games since '52, reaffirmed the official Chinese view that the Games give the developing country the biggest p.r. bang for its buck. And the spare-time system—a hierarchy of schools designed to produce Olympic champions—has been the backbone of sporting success. Refusing to allow their daughter to contribute to the effort to "bring glory to Beijing city and to China," as one parent puts it, would be unpatriotic, so the Zhangs enrolled Liyin at the Western District school.
Besides, what other road to the Olympics is there? In China there are precious few neighborhood playgrounds. According to the government of the People's Republic, there's one gym for every 3.5 million people. In America the next great Olympic basketball star might be forging his game by himself in Hell's Kitchen, but that sort of thing rarely happens in China. Eighty percent of China's national team members come from spare-time schools, and 90% of Chinese record holders have been spare-timers.
Of course, spare-time students are about as spare time as a first-year medical intern. Most spare-time schools are full of students who live, study and train at the school. Only a few attend a normal school and then come to the spare-time school afterward. Liyin, who's too young for the spare-time-school kindergarten, stays at home during the mornings and goes to the school from noon to six.
A spare-timer can stay enrolled until he or she no longer shows potential to take the next step up. If that potential is deemed to be lacking, the child is asked to leave. It's a system set up to find the one in a million, or in China's case, the one in a billion. One spare-time school, Shishahai, the Notre Dame of Beijing spare-time schools, actually has full-time kids who are still in nursery school. "It's a big, big net to make sure we get the best fish," says one official of a school. "That's the advantage of socialism."
Success is all in the selection process. Like nearly every other spare-timer, Liyin wasn't picked because she could do cartwheels and somersaults. She was picked for her build, her flexibility, her personality and, most of all, her taste for chi ku. She was merely playing in a nursery school class when a coach from the spare-time school spotted her. "She had broad shoulders, narrow hips, straight legs, symmetrical limbs, open-minded-ness, vivaciousness and an outgoing personality," says the coach.
Indeed, after a few days of hanging around spare-time schools, you can guess a kid's sport by his build alone. The volleyball players are uniformly tall and lanky, with long legs and big hands. If you were to take the members of a typical volleyball class and line them up for a group photo, their heights would be so equal it would be impossible to determine who should go in the back row and who should be in the front. "We go into the elementary school classes and pick the tallest children." says Tian Chuanhai, the volleyball coach at the Shishahai Spare-Time Sports School. "It's O.K. if they're skinny. It's easier to develop their physiques sideways than upward."
Wu shu (as "martial arts" is called in China) athletes are of medium height and weight and are exceptionally quick, with loads of shaosa, bold and free movement. They have highly toned muscles and more handsome faces than their spare mates in other sports. Wu shu is the dryland cousin of figure skating: Great talent is nice, but great talent and a striking profile are much nicer. Weightlifters, even at 10 and 11 years old, are squatty and thick-boned. Wrestlers are tested by Shishahai wrestling coach Li Shuyuan for "softness," which is how the Chinese describe finesse and quickness.
During the selection process, the coaches don't even care if a child has never played a particular sport. They're guessing what a kid might be good at. For instance, Bao Yanming came to Shishahai as a promising discus thrower, but he hasn't thrown a discus since arriving there. The coaches who saw him work out with the discus invited him to enroll as a wrestler.
If a child is plucked out of day-care or elementary school, it's possible he could get his entire education in the Chinese sports-school system. Take Liyin. If she continues to show progress at the Western District school, she could be asked to move in full time next year. She would go to school there, study there and live in a dorm there six days out of seven. It's an idea her father has grown to like. "I know we'd miss her," he says, "but with my wife to begin working soon and me so busy, it would be nice."
If she is very good at gymnastics, she could stay at the school until she is 16. If she is terrific, she could be shipped over to Shishahai, where the elite meet to compete. Shishahai is like the other sports schools—it has every facility imaginable for sports: a giant Ping-Pong room with 30 tables and 2,000 balls (for the younger kids, the legs of the tables are cut down); a giant gymnastics room; an Olympic-sized swimming pool; outdoor (read: dirt) basketball and tennis courts; wrestling, weightlifting and volleyball centers; an indoor basketball court; a giant, many-mirrored wu shu room; housing (six kids to a room); a cafeteria and, oh, yes, a smattering of classrooms. The difference is that there's one preeminent spare-time school in each major city, and Shishahai is the one for Beijing. It has the best athletes and the best teachers and offers its students the best chances to travel to competitions.