SI Vault
Robert Sullivan
August 15, 1988
China's ancient passion for acrobatics has helped make its divers, like world champ Gao Min (left), No. 1
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August 15, 1988

A New Twist In Diving

China's ancient passion for acrobatics has helped make its divers, like world champ Gao Min (left), No. 1

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A common misconception is that sports in China are not fun. According to this view, the Chinese Sports Commission storms the countryside plucking children from the bosom of their families and forcing them to attend rigorous provincial sports schools. The best athletes are then harvested from these programs and shipped to the most advanced training centers, such as the one in Beijing, where they're honed for international competition. It's a tough job for a kid, but someone's got to do it.

Certainly, China starts its athletes young, and sometimes there's heartache for a child struggling to keep up at sports school (see preceding story). But for many Chinese children, particularly those who enjoy the fruits of success at a tender age, sports are not only fun, they're a whole lot of fun.

Witness the world-beating Chinese divers. They're still kids for the most part. They're smiling. They're spirited. They're singing, dancing, having a ball. And they're doing exactly what they want to do, which means diving, diving, diving.

Ask world champion springboarder Gao Min, who turned 18 last month, why she started diving, and she says, "Diving's fun. I was doing gymnastics and just playing around when I went to the pool. When I was 10, I started diving for the heck of it, and the gymnastics helped. It was fun." Ask platform diver Chen Xiaodan, 14, if a coach made her do it. "Oh, no. I started myself, when I was seven, and I got better on my own," she says. "The coaches came later."

Under the misconception, the Beijing Gymnasium, where national teams in several sports come to sharpen up before important competitions, is a prison. In fact, life at the gym, at least for the divers, resembles a session at summer camp. Susan Brownell, an American who was working in Beijing on her doctorate in Chinese sports and culture, says, "Most star athletes look at their careers fondly, not like they're part of a machine. Their relationship with their coaches really is like that between a parent and child."

And the Beijing Gymnasium is more than a gym. It's a complex of three large, grim buildings near the Temple of Heaven. One of the structures is a dorm, another contains basketball and volleyball courts, and the third houses the pool. They're surrounded by playing fields. The facilities aren't elaborate, or even impressive; for example, the clocks in the pool building are broken.

The divers get up early when they're in residence in Beijing, and after breakfast they jog to a soccer field to loosen up. The girls, some of whom stand less than five feet and weigh about 80 pounds, kick a volleyball because a soccer ball would be too heavy. The boys are a little bigger, but not much. Two of China's best male platform divers, Chen Yingjian and Xiong Ni, are 14, and neither is taller than 5'3" or weighs more than 105 pounds. But they're no sissies; they kick a real soccer ball. The kids just boot the balls up and down the field, laughing and hollering. They're goofing around. Their diving coaches watch without interfering.

After the athletes have worked up a light sweat, they head inside to practice under the knowing eye of head coach Xu Yiming. There is only one 10-meter platform and one three-meter springboard at the pool, so no one escapes his scrutiny. He isn't light with the criticism. Although Yingjian and Ni are barely in their teens and are trying to master the most difficult dives off the high tower, Xu draws them aside and curtly points outs what's wrong with their form. Soccer's one thing; it's O.K. to fool around while kicking the ball. Diving at the world-class level is quite another; it's all business at the pool. The team's workout is brisk and intense. By lunchtime the kids are ready for a break.

At the cafeteria they dig into steamed bread; rice; sautéed meat, fish or vegetables; fruit; ice cream; and yogurt. Their diet is much better than that of the average Chinese. That the food is healthful as well as ample is also true; after all, you shouldn't trust a teenager when it comes to nutrition, and the officials here don't.

After lunch the divers have their tutorials. Since most of the team is school-age, lip service, at the least, must be paid to academics. But lip service is all it is. Studies don't occupy much of the day or much of the kids' attention. The teachers give instruction in Chinese language, math, physics, history and geography, but realize that book learning plays second fiddle to sports at the Beijing Gymnasium. Xiaodan is one of the more studious divers: she reads novels and is an avid stamp collector. But even she squirms in her seat during the tutorials.

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