Understanding China's gymnastics powerhouse
He Kexin can barely speak through the sobbing.
The tiny 18-year-old, barely the 4ft 9in listed in her profile, is cloistered by two-dozen Chinese reporters in a large, rectangular basement a stone's throw from the main arena at the World Gymnastics in Rotterdam.
He, the Olympic uneven bars champion at Beijing 2008 and possessor of the most technically challenging routine in the world, fell spectacularly from the bars minutes earlier - as did her young team-mate, Huang Qiushuang.
The pair have watched Britain's Beth Tweddle seize their squandered gold-medal opportunity, and must now face the media and the consequences in a featureless room. A day later it will be their coach, Lu Shanzhen, standing here under the spotlight of Chinese state television, China's women having ended a World Championships without a gold medal for the first time since 2002.
As He's tears flow and the teenager forlornly fights for air beneath a carpet of faces and dictaphones, a journalist from another organisation turns to me and says: "Can you imagine what she's going to face back home?"
An emotional He Kexin following her uneven bars tumble. Photo: AFP
It is hard to imagine - there is little opportunity to ask or to explore for yourself.
Some who have, such as four-times Olympic rowing champion Sir Matthew Pinsent, return with stories of gymnasts being beaten by their coaches, an incident he termed "a pretty disturbing experience".
A few months ago, the Daily Mail published a series of photos depicting young Chinese gymnasts in various states of contortion, alongside the opening line: "It's enough to make any parents grimace." The article drew 75 comments.
Even the age of the country's gymnasts has been the subject of much dispute, not least He. It has been alleged she won her Olympic title aged just 14, against the rules governing the age of international gymnasts.
Though the sport’s world governing body, the FIG, investigated the accusation and pronounced itself satisfied with the paperwork provided by China, that did not entirely dampen speculation.
Then, earlier this year, China were stripped of their team gymnastics bronze from Sydney 2000 when another gymnast, Dong Fangxiao, was found to be only 14 at the time. China insists it has improved its age checking procedures since.
The Chinese system which arouses these concerns is also one which exports world champion gymnasts as easily as mass-produced factory items. How does that happen? How has gymnastics come to represent the best of Chinese sport to some, and the worst to others?
In the light of the failure of China's women to pick up any world titles, this is an interesting time to ask that question.
"We did a good job in qualifying, and maybe that's why our gymnasts were a little nervous about the finals," head coach Lu told viewers back in Beijing after the final gold medal had slipped from China's grasp in Rotterdam.
"We misjudged some of our rivals. They are getting stronger and stronger, we misjudged them and we didn't prepare that well. We need to prepare harder."
Trevor Low, author of several gymnastics books and chair of the British Gymnastics men's technical committee, believes negative coverage of China's gymnastics programme in the Western media is unwarranted. Low has travelled extensively in China and believes the system in place is "hard but fair".
"Despite what people say, and even though it can seem to go against the grain of the way we would do things, China has a very caring group of coaches on the whole," he tells me.
"They clamp down hard. For instance, in one period I spent there, they pulled in a coach who had a significantly higher injury rate for his gymnasts than other coaches. They brought him in to the national training centre with his gymnasts to train for a week, so the other coaches could work out what he was doing. They monitor their younger children very well and they take action when something is not right.
"I remember Sir Matthew Pinsent's report in 2005. He thought it bordered on cruelty but you walk into an alien culture, you look at what people are doing and you make a value judgement based on your own system.
"I believed at the time, and I still think it's true, that people react to flavour-of-the-month opinion. Every Olympic Games we come up with the same gems of gossip - Chinese children, Russian children, Romanian children being abused. We pick up where we left off every four years."
Gymnastics in China is a nationwide industry and one in which the majority of Chinese children will at some stage participate, spending six months being taught basic stretches and movements to ascertain if their bodies are suited to the sport.
If chosen to progress, budding gymnasts move into what Low calls a "relentless" programme, packed with targets which they must hit at regular intervals. As a result, Low has seen girls aged 11 and 12 perform world-class routines. From there, the centralised system sweeps the country's finest prospects into a single, national centre in Beijing, where they will live and train.
Video: Beth Tweddle wins uneven bars gold. (UK only)
"It was awe-inspiring," says Colin Still, British national coach, who visited that training centre in the run-up to the Beijing Games. "You go through the gates into a walled environment with a football pitch, a trampoline centre, and a diving centre without water, where you learn how to hit the springboard.
"Within the centre they have flats overlooking the football pitch. The Chinese move not only the gymnasts but their families, so they're in the same environment. They're there, trained by the national coaches in the national centre, all year round.
"One of our guys asked what all the pictures on the wall of their gym were - 40 or 50 different portraits. Our guide said they were gymnasts who had won Olympic gold medals or world titles for China. Fifty of them. We have Beth Tweddle. That's all we've got."
With a population of well over a billion and an engrained devotion to gymnastics, it isn't surprising that the Chinese have more titles in the trophy cabinet. That ability to call upon legions of top-class gymnasts goes some way to explaining the intense pressure on the few who compete at international level.
"As far as these gymnasts are concerned, it's a way out of poverty," says Still. "But if one isn't performing and getting to the top, then the next one is already in the wings. All these gymnasts are looking over their shoulders, they're dispensable.
"While medals of any colour are good for Britain at this point in time, China are only there for gold. These gymnasts are the top of the top in China, looking to be the absolute top in the world. But they are human and under this amount of pressure, they don't always get it right."
And when they don't get it right, they fall from the uneven bars. But even a silver medal could not keep Deng Linlin, narrowly beaten to balance beam gold by Romania's Ana Porgras, from bursting into tears in front of the same press pack a day later. She trembled with emotion as one journalist reached out to pat her on the shoulder, an awkward attempt at compassion in a confrontational environment.
Silver on the balance beam was small consolation for Deng Linlin. Photo: AFP
Contrast that with Britain's charismatic Louis Smith, who bounded through the same room with a smile as large as his personality having won a medal of the same colour.
"Deng Linlin was living and breathing for a gold medal and it didn't come," says Low. "Losing face and respect in Chinese society still matters. She would be lauded for being a potential world champion and when it didn't happen, she lost face.
"You have to understand Chinese culture. They will be significantly shameful of the fact they have failed to live up to what they believed, and were told, they could do."
Both Low and Still talk about the scale of China's programme, and ambition, with a sense of guarded admiration, and neither believe the physical and emotional cost is as great as is often portrayed. But that programme itself is having its foundations eroded. As China's borders grow increasingly porous its traditional love affair with gymnastics is beginning to wane, like those of Romania and Russia before it.
"On my second visit to China, we met up with Li Ning, the world champion gymnast," recalls Low. "Wherever he went in Beijing, he was recognised and applauded - if he went into a restaurant, people stood up.
"That is starting to slip - it's now about football and cars. Gymnastics is already being edged out as commercial interests take over."
Having seen China's chastened child stars at close quarters last week, some may bid good riddance to a system which reduces children so publicly to tears. But sobbing gymnasts are not exclusive to China.
Had you looked beyond the media scrum surrounding victorious French vaulter Thomas Bouhail on Sunday, you would have seen another tiny, wailing Asian girl, propped up in a low, white armchair, her feet barely scraping the floor. She cried for more than an hour. That was Mai Yamagishi, a young Japanese gymnast.
Gymnastics is unique in that it demands so much from competitors who may well have school, puberty and a host of other teenage concerns to deal with alongside their sport. In that context, it is hard to imagine the tears ever leaving the arena.
"It's normal to have pressure and nerves. It motivates us to get better results," Chinese male gymnast Teng Haibing told me, through an interpreter.
"Even though we haven't got a gold medal for the girls' team here, we still believe in their capability. We're working hard. Now, we move forward to the next competition."