China Presses Injured Athletes in Quest for Gold

Olympics China diving retina injury medals sports Beijing Mao Deng

Copyright The New York Times
Published: June 20, 2008
SHANGHAI — When China’s champion 10-meter platform diver suffered a detached retina while training, a year after winning a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, family members and fans speculated about the imminent end of a great career.
The parents of the diver, Hu Jia, had surrendered him to trainers from the Chinese sports establishment at the age of 10, and had seen little of him since then. In an interview with a Chinese newspaper after the diver’s injury, his father suggested that this was sacrifice enough. Had he known his son risked blindness, the father said, “I would never have sent him off to dive.”
But less than two months before China hosts the Olympics for the first time, Mr. Hu is training and competing fiercely again, aiming to bolster a national diving squad that China hopes will dominate the sport this summer.
“The Beijing Olympics is an enormous glory to our generation,” Mr. Hu, whose other retina was also injured, was quoted in the Chinese media as saying last year. Speaking of another gold medal, he added, “I will do my utmost to grab one, unless my eyes are really blind.”
Pressured by the national athletic system and tempted by the commercial riches awaiting star performers in the 2008 Games, China’s athletes are pushing themselves to their limits and beyond, causing some to risk their health in pursuit of nationalist glory.
“An astonishing amount of manpower, money and goods have been poured in, so much so that it’s inappropriate to be revealed publicly,” said Lu Yuanzhen, a professor of sports sociology at the Academy of Sports Sciences at South China Normal University. If the country’s athletes do not perform up to expectations, he added, “the entire nation and its people will lose face.”
Since surpassing Russia to win the second most gold medals in the 2004 Olympics, its highest ranking ever, China has held an unofficial but undeniable ambition to cap the hosting of the Games by surpassing the United States and finishing atop the medal board.
The resulting pressure is felt by nearly all of China’s Olympic aspirants, from still largely unheralded performers in relatively unglamorous sports to the country’s brightest marquee names, like Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets center who sat out the final two months of the N.B.A. season with a stress fracture in his left foot but is still expected to play for China’s national team.
Athletes regarded as potential gold medalists have been urged out of retirement, and some female stars have been urged to resume training and competing soon after giving birth. Previous gold medal winners, meanwhile, have heard for four years that failure to pull off a repeat victory will let the whole nation down. Many have trained for the Games despite serious injuries. A female weight lifter, Tang Gonghong, persevered until early this year despite having such high blood pressure that her chief coach said it “threatens her life at any moment.”
‘Don’t Retreat’
These pressures can perhaps be seen most clearly in the recent experience of Liu Xiang, a Chinese track athlete who became a national hero and the country’s most popular sports star in Athens when he won the 110-meter men’s hurdles, a sport in which China had never excelled. Mr. Liu’s coach was recently quoted in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, as saying, “Officials from the State General Administration of Sport once told us that if Liu cannot win another gold medal in Beijing, all of his previous achievements will become meaningless.”
So far, Mr. Liu has not had to contend with a serious injury. But last August, after winning the track world championships in Japan, he spoke of the agony of high expectations. “I’ve been tortured these days,” Mr. Liu said. “I was afraid of speaking too much. I’ve never been so nervous; more nervous than in the Olympics, because there’s too much attention on me.”
For many athletes, playing through injuries is standard practice. Most of China’s Olympic-caliber competitors are tightly controlled by a system that manages almost every aspect of their lives, often from early childhood. This includes housing, education, medical care and interactions with the public and the news media. In this system, decisions about training regimens and the risks of injuries do not get much of a public airing. The case of Zheng Jie, a top female doubles tennis player, however, provides a glimpse of how the obligation to perform often operates.
Despite a painful ankle injury, Ms. Zheng played a punishing schedule last year to gain tour points required to compete in the Olympics. In a news conference after she lost in the first round of the French Open, she broke down in tears. “The pain in my foot was so strong I could hardly concentrate,” she said.
Ms. Zheng said her doctor had told her that she risked permanent injury if she kept playing without treatment and rest. But in an interview, she said her coach denied her request to concede the French Open match. In a television interview after her defeat, the coach, Jiang Hongwei, said Ms. Zheng and her teammate, Yan Zi, “had too much concern for their injuries, which was an important factor in their performance.”
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