One Olympic Games, Two Athletic Lives

When asked about her future plans in a recent interview with USA Today, Eileen Gu, the Chinese-American freestyle skier and three-time Olympic medalist, said she would go to Standford University in the coming fall, but there was no settled plan in terms of skiing competitively. “Who knows?,” she said, “I’m gonna do whatever feels right and hopefully be able to create some positive change out of any decision that I make.”

Similarly, Su Yiming, an 18-year-old Olympic snowboard champion, has shown incredible openness, individualism and confidence in talking about his prospects for life after the Olympics. “The Olympics is only the first big achievement I have made, and there will be more waiting for me in the future,” Su said in an interview, adding that instead of becoming a full-time professional snowboarder, he might also continue his acting career, which began when he was seven years old.

Together, Gu and Su represent the group of athletes atypical to China’s Olympic teams – those scouted by amateurs and clubs, as opposed to the ones selected and trained from a young age within the state-sponsored sports system that China inherited from the Soviet Union in the 1960s. This system, known as “Ju Guo Ti Zhi” (“举国体制”) in Chinese, is a centrally administered system aiming to pool as much as human and financial resources to provide the maximum support for a handful of exceptional athletes. It requires the effective allocation of national resources for competitive sports in order to produce the best possible athletic results on the international stage.

Within the system, an athlete’s career begins from a young age, usually between six and nine years old. Sports schools across China’s hundreds of counties and cities form the base of the pyramid. After several years of training, about 12% are selected through a series of competitions to advance to provincial teams and become professional athletes. From there, a talented few get selected for the national teams. According to a study by Fan Hong at De Montfort University, in 2004, there were about 400,000 young boys and girls training at more than 3,000 sports schools throughout China, of which only 5% will be able to reach the top.

Such a system ensures an effective systematic selection and production of sports stars, facilitating China’s rise as a sports superpower since late 1980s.

By definition, China’s state-sponsored sports system provides its athletes with resources, funding and benefits. Once selected into the system, the athlete becomes an employee of the state, and will spend the rest of their career life “training the body for the nation.”

It is for this reason that Chinese commentator Zhao Haoyang has called the state-sponsored sports system an “effective way for those from a humble background to move upward the social ladder,” as an alternative to the exam-oriented formal education system, also highly competitive. This remains true for China’s winter sports teams too.

Most of the athletes from China’s Olympic teams followed this path. Fan Kexin, a skater who won a gold medal in the short-track speed skating mixed team relay at the recent Beijing Winter Olympics, is a typical example.

Born in a small coal-mining city called Qitaihe in China’s Northeast, Fan Kexin lived her childhood in poverty. Her father Fan Shizhong lost the whole family’s savings in a business failure when Fan Kexin was two years old, and for years, the family lived in a half-basement in the city, repairing bicycles for a living.

In a recent interview, Fan’s mother recalled the poor living condition during those hard years – a narrow basement, cold and damp, with bunk beds – reminiscent of the half-basement residence portrayed in South Korean Oscar-winning film Parasite. “We ha[d] no toilet, no access to water so we had to go to someone else’s home to get water,” the mother said. “The kid saw everything in the family and was sensible from an early age.”

At the age of eight, Fan met her first coach, Ma Qingzhong, who invited her to the local sports school to be trained as a skater. The first thing Fan asked was, “Do I have to pay to become a skater?” When she was 17 years old, Fan stood out in a competition and made it into the national team.

On the surface, life as a state-sponsored athlete seems carefree and comfortable. Chinese table tennis player Zhang Yining once recalled that since she started playing table tennis at the age of five, she had never bothered to buy a single racket or pair of shoes. “Everything was taken care of by the country… I only need to concentrate on table tennis.” The investment has paid off – she has so far won a total of four Olympic medals for China.

But for a state-sponsored athlete, making it to the national team does not guarantee successful ascension on the social ladder, and the mission is completed only when they win the Olympic medals. Fan’s teammate Zhou Yang, thirty-year-old speed skater, won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. In the after-race interview, Zhou said, “I hope this [winning the gold medal] will make life easier for my parents.” While Zhou’s remarks were chided by China’s then deputy sports minister Yu Zaiqing for putting her parents before the motherland, the local government awarded her parents with a new apartment valued at 300,000 yuan in her home city of Changchun. Before that, despite being a member of the national team, Zhou Yang was making only 500 yuan per month, one sixth of the country’s average monthly income in 2010.

While the system runs with perceivable efficiency in producing excellent athletic results on the international stage, it is not met without criticism. Since most of the athletes’ time has been invested in training, a large number of Chinese state-sponsored athletes remain inadequately educated.

The medal-oriented nature of the system also means that life within it can be dreadfully competitive, and boring. Upon inception in 1963, the state-sponsored sports system adopted the People’s Army’s training methods – “hard, disciplined, intensive training and practice according to real battle,” which later evolved into the so-called “three non-afraids” – not being afraid of hardship, difficulty or injury – and “five toughnesses”: spirit, body, skill, training and competition.

Principles like these stand in sharp contrast with the life stories of Eileen Gu and Su Yiming, who started skiing and snowboarding as a hobby, and did not join China’s national team until 2019 and 2018, respectively. Compared with state-sponsored athletes like Fan Kexin and Zhou Yang, growing up, Gu and Su have enjoyed a far more colorful life trying out different things of their own choice. “Skiing is a big part of my life, but it’s not everything. I am going to do so many things in my life,” said Gu.

Born and raised in the U.S., Eileen Gu began skiing when she was three years old. In a 2019 documentary, Gu’s mother Yan Gu said that all she did was to create an environment that allowed her daughter to try out different things and have fun. Unlike her peers within China’s state-sponsored sports system who aimed for the national teams since day one in sports school, at the age of fifteen, Eileen Gu was still deciding whether she would become a professional skier. “I do want to be a professional athlete, but only as long as it makes me happy.” Her competing in the Olympics was also more of a pleasant self-challenge than a stressful race for medals.

Su Yiming’s snowboarding life started when he was three years old. Both of his parents loved snowboarding, and have found Su one of the best coaches in the country. Su became a child actor in 2014, and has since appeared in several Chinese films. He is also a hip-pop junkie, loves surfing and sky diving. In an interview with state media CCTV, Su said the only thing that motivates him to snowboard is passion.

Cao Yaqi, deputy chief editor of China’s largest sports newspaper Titan Sports, defined atheletes like Gu and Su as “self-funded skiers,” who manage their own training and facilitate their own sponsors. “China’s state-sponsored sports system is a top-down one, whereas atheletes in the U.S. and Europe follow a bottom-up path, including Eileen Gu… So far, they have not yet been institutionally included in China’s established sports system,” explained Cao Yaqi.

Of the 177 Chinese athletes who participated in the Beijing Winter Olympics, about one fifth came from a scheme that selects qualified atheletes across the country’s amateurs. Nearly half of those who compete in snow sports were amateurs selected from outside the state-sponsored system. Su Yiming was one of them.

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“The state training system is waning in winter sports, with elite sports training giving way to scouting from amateurs and clubs,” Beijing-based sports columnist Yang Wang said. “Su Yiming is a perfect example of this new type of talent scouting. In the future, China will see more and more self-made athletes.”