Steve April 15, 2021

Under the twin emblems of the Chinese flag and the Olympic rings, two boys dangle from the high bar in a cavernous gym – the cradle of China’s elite gymnasts.

Elsewhere, rows of children as young as four hold the splits and handstands under the watchful eye of coaches at the Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School in Xiantao, west of Wuhan.

They are among the latest recruits to China’s notoriously demanding state sports system, which has attracted legions of critics but has also made it one of the most successful Olympic nations.

Despite the tough nature of the drills, officials at the school say the focus is now on fun for the children – “happy gymnastics” – rather than the medal-obsessed ways.

“We are more relaxed now. In the past, we certainly hoped to produce lots of champions,” said deputy head teacher Liu Fen. “But now society and people’s minds are changing, so our training mode is also changing.”

The postponed Tokyo Olympics, starting in July this year, will be the culmination of years of training for China’s latest crop of top gymnasts.

The pressure to succeed is high after China’s gymnastics team failed to win a gold medal at Rio 2016 – just eight years after they dominated at Beijing 2008.

At the national training centre in the capital Beijing, the Chinese flag adorns a wall along with a red banner saying: “Win the Tokyo Olympics.”

Leading gymnasts pause training only to review their performances on tablets or take sips from water bottles.

There is little room for error. They bow to their coaches in apology if they are not up to scratch and bad performance is punished with extra weight training at the end of a long day.

For these athletes dreaming of gold at the Tokyo Games, this is a life they embarked upon at a young age.

Read More