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Michael Phelps hasn't had a normal life since he was eleven years old.

He's spent most of his free time back home in Baltimore training and pounding the swimming lanes, all with the aim of becoming the best swimmer the world has ever known.

And now, after an unprecedented eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, he is certainly that.

But at what expense?

Forsaking fun and frolics and possibly even potential friendships, it's been reported that a young Phelps wouldn't go tobogganing and bowling with his school colleagues in case he injured himself.

It must now all seem worthwhile, and at least he had eleven years of a childhood before dedicating himself to the single minded existence of a sportsman.

Some don't have that long.

At Central Beijing's Shichahai Sports School, six year old boys live in dormitories and train in underground gymnasiums, perfecting the skills that are designed to make them champion gymnasts of the future.

Some will succeed, but most will fail.

Chinese boys practice floor exercises during gymnastics training at the Shichahai Sports School in Beijing

China is not unique in adopting talent identification schemes and using incessant training, drills and practice to manufacture champions, but most don't do it with such single minded zeal.

Australia has 20 talent identification centres, and Great Britain has established a talent identification programme ahead of the London 2012 Games.

There are many more across the globe, but presumably not many of them are as focussed on the extremely young as they are in China.

Many countries use sports science to examine, analyse and improve the performance of their athletes.

Without sports science, the odds of making it to the top of the pile are greatly diminished, and many countries, China included, just aren't willing to leave anything to chance.

In the past few years, China has far outstripped any other country in money invested in athlete development. $8bn no less. The return is obvious to see in the results here at Beijing 2008.

Having undergone some very basic physiological tests myself at St Mary's University College in London, I learnt some fascinating facts.

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Did you know that human athletic performance peaks after just four seconds?

After that it's downhill all the way. For me, the graph dipped dramatically and frighteningly quickly (note to self, must eat more veg and carbs!), but even for professional athletes there is a continuous dip in the performance graph after four seconds, but obviously given their fitness levels the dip is more gradual.

On Wednesday's My Games, we'll be looking at sports science and talent identification, so we'd like to know what you think.

Is it fair that a six-year-old should have to live the monastic life of a professional athlete?

Would you, like Phelps, be prepared to give up your teenage years to endless hours of training? Does sports science give the richer countries an unfair advantage over those who can't afford to invest as much?

Chinese athletics star Liu Xiang has crashed out of this year's Beijing Games. His first coach blames the country's state sports system for pushing Liu too hard. What do you think?

Who knows how long some of the Chinese competitors have been training for their big day? Five years? 10? 15? Many of them are champions, but what price would you pay to be one?

Adnan Nawaz presents the My Games programme on BBC World. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.


Comments

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  • 1. At 7:20pm on 18 Aug 2008, levdavidovich wrote:

    Essentailly, you get what you pay for, whether that's money or time.

    The media coverage of Saturday's and Sunday's successes indicates that there is a manic desire for "British" success, and, thus, the money and time will be found for the next Olympics, regardless of consequences.

    Only if an athlete drops dead after passing the winning post can he really have given his all.

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  • 2. At 7:41pm on 18 Aug 2008, clearpoint wrote:

    Spoting a futre olympic star depends on how fast they are being discovered wether in school or a spoting centre or an exhibition and groomed effectively with the best best facilities, not necessarily first class, with encouragement and high self esteem to achieving success in the particu;ar sports in question!

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  • 3. At 8:28pm on 18 Aug 2008, Inherent wrote:

    now they've got the pro's involved in most sports why not horse racing ?

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  • 4. At 8:41pm on 18 Aug 2008, emamel wrote:

    Yet more coverage from the BBC starting with the name Michael Phelps. Every Olympic show now begins with Jamaican sprinters, then they move onto Phelps.
    If only British stars like the Real McHoy got this obsessive coverage.
    BRITISH Broadcasting Corp, NOT US nor Jamaica.
    Get a job in American media if you want to obsess about Americans, I'm fed up with pathetic dumbed down rubbish from the BBC, whilst Britain is having its most successful Olympics.
    We pay your wages, your travel for these holidays abroad, report on our stars.
    If the BBC were a national broadcaster paid for by compulsory licence fees, what would its flag look like? The Stars and Stripes!

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  • 5. At 9:22pm on 18 Aug 2008, derekjoe wrote:

    It's not like those kids are conscribed into those schools and compulsorily trained forever. They are sent be their parents for diferent reasons. Some parents just hope their children to be stronger and healthier. Some more utilitarian ones hope to have a sports star who can make money for the family. But still, this is all voluntary, you can quit whenever you want, but when you're still in the school, you should listen to the coach.

    I have a college room-mate who had been in such a sports school trained as a shooter. When he graduated from junior high, his family decided he should quit because he's not good enough while he's good at study. He also told us the long-time boring training is one of the reasons why he quit, but it did make him a more self-disciplined and composed person than us.

    I think that's similar to some tennis schools in the US. Many young kids are sent to Florida every year by their zealous parents. Most famous tennis players start playing tennis at 6 or 7 yo. We may have a more colourful childhood, but there's always something to pay to become somebody.

    About Liu Xiang, I think his problem is not being trained too much, but the opposite. He's been occupied too much in commercial activities these years. He has a team to deal with those stuff and they always hope he can make more money. After his success in Osaka last year, Liu elevated his self-confidence again. He believed he could started his regular training just 3 months before the Olympics and still won gold. That's why he never showed up in competitions for a long time. And in Eugene, Oregon earlier this year, he decided to take the first match of this year as a warming-up. But obviously he's not in good form and got injured due to lack of training. Since then he's stuck in the dilemma between training to get back in form and recovering from the injury. That's why the deteriorated injury finally made him quit. So it's money not training knock him down.

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  • 6. At 9:24pm on 18 Aug 2008, Lereon wrote:

    For an athlete, no matter how much "fun and frolics" are given up to your training, he or she will be gradually compensated by the invaluable growing experiences and ecstasies that only a true athlete has the privilege to enjoy.

    Your cynicism of China's talent identification schemes is a bit unprofessional. Regarding China's huge population and tight job oppotunities, such schemes are supposed to offer a possible decent life to those who are physically good, not simply to win honour for the nation. Some sacrifice of normal"childhood fun and frolics" is just inevitable for any professional sportman. In China, starting at a younger age and affording more time gives an athlete more chances to achieve among the massive number of domestic competitors. After all, a decent life in China is never easily won.

    If you are physically fit for gymnastics and have some passion for sportmanship, you will be more than willing and feel lucky when chosen by a talent centre like Shichahai Sports Shool, which has the pedigree of training Olympic stars. It marks your basic specialty and excellence that not just a Chinese may desire.

    Yes only the minority of them will stand out achieved, this is just a rule for all competitive sports, and if not overrated, a rule for the whole Chinese competitive panorama. You just have to get better and better to outperform others. Such atmosphere is furious and encouraging. When you are involved in an undeniable new power base on earth, with so many possibilities plus so many challenges, you simply can never think too much before you try, the reality just pushes you.

    As a professional journalist from west, you really should go deep in their ongoing life and their mentality, not some stiff stereotype only believeing the Chinese are all robot-like, before your raise questiones and make judgements. I guess you have alrealdy got some idea of the Chinese young generation during this Olympics. They do not talk much about politics, simply because they do not care. With so much to do in a huge dynamic country, why should they care so much about politics in the first place? What they want is to be individually excellent, and they all have their own plans of life.

    As for Liu Xiang's withdrawal from the 110m hurdles, the nation is not as crushed as you described. You can just find out how it is genuinely responded on web, tolerence and best wishes simply outweigh. People here is growing increasingly realistic, and I hope you western journalits can grow as well, and if possible, make less age-old political fuss.

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  • 7. At 10:14pm on 18 Aug 2008, FreddieCT wrote:

    It depends if the child wants to actully take part and train to be an olympian or not. He/she should be told that it takes a lot of hard work and time, if it's not obvious.

    Obviously its good to start training young, while muscles are still tender and to get your body into the good health. But not socially if it sucks up time for social activities.

    You said China has spent $8bn on talent spotting for their huge population. Its retty obvious why; scouting talent for the next olympic star through 1.3bn people is not going to be easy if you have low funding, is it? That figure just makes us feel lower because we cannot just drop $8bn like that.

    Many westerners dont know how much pressure chinese people and parents give to their children. I myself being chinese always feel the pressure to suceed in my education. You will also find chinese parents pushing you to be great in sports (If you've been spotted as a potential star). I suppose many chinese parents cut off any social things that will ruin the chances of getting a medal.

    And as we all know, Liu has dropped out of his hurdles, very saddening, I know. Probably all the pressure and fustration.

    Its like going to a supermarket, and then someone says to you that there is £1Million on the top shelf, you can have it if you reach it without a ladder.

    Its there, but you cannot reach it. Very fustrating.

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  • 8. At 00:40am on 19 Aug 2008, FixedGuru wrote:

    There has been a lot of research into matching individuals with sports in which they might, one day become champions, often a by-product of the East-West one-upmanship during the Cold War.
    Understandably, such work tends to focus upon the physical body type. "A sprinter should be X, Y, Z,; a distance runner should be A, B, C, etc"
    However, there are numerous individuals who deviate from the expected "standard" and yet still succeed.
    Comments have been made that Usain Bolt was considered too tall for a sprinter! Presumably the 100m is now a distance event.

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  • 9. At 01:05am on 19 Aug 2008, chm1mchm1m wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 10. At 02:58am on 19 Aug 2008, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso wrote:

    For Adnan Nawaz: Your article on how to spot an Olympic Star was great. It is not difficult to spot an Olympic Star since he or she could be a family member, a mentor, a friend, or even a next door neighbour. An Olympic Star is a person who is talented, professional, and one who behaves with dignity. I do wish that you and the BBC would quit your China Bashing since most of their athletes have the qualities lacking in most Western Athletes [with the exception of Michael Phelps]. My Best Wishes from Miami Florida.

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  • 11. At 09:44am on 19 Aug 2008, MikeFay wrote:

    Children tested repeatedly from a very young age, pressured constantly, permanently monitored, expected to produce a continued and increasing stream of success. Hothousing for success is the rule, at the cost of freedom to play.

    As both a sportsman and an academic, I have to ask - why would one view it as bad when it happens in China with the aim of getting gold medals, but fine when it happens in the UK for passing school exams?

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  • 12. At 10:16am on 19 Aug 2008, Pencils wrote:

    If small children are forced into hours of training then this can only be called "abuse" and condemmed as such.
    How can a fanatical adult trainer or parent craving for the reflected glory be the judge of wether a such a young child "wants to do what they are doing".

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  • 13. At 11:06am on 19 Aug 2008, smilingSpongeMuffin wrote:

    It all depends on how you report them.

    The USA used to report the medals in the traditional manner. Number of golds first, number of silvers second, and bronze third. Instead, as they have less golds than China, they have changed the rules to just add up the total medals.

    This is the most shameful piece of unolympic reporting I have seen.

    They seem committed to believing in their own greatness, even if they have to lie to propagate that. NBC truly believe that they top the medals board. This is an insult to those great American athletes (and the non American athletes who are competing for them) that have got them to number two in the table. It is sort of saying they have not done well enough.

    They have Russia and Australia ahead of us.

    By their calculations, a bronze medal scores the same points as a gold. It would have been no more advantageous for the USA, if Phelps had won all bronze, by their calculations.

    How can two or more sides compete, and operate on two different scoring systems.

    On the weekend, both Man City and Aston Villa won a thrilling game 4-2. Aston Villa scored more goals than Manchester City, whilst at the same time, Manchester City let in more goals than Aston Villa. They both scored 3 points each.

    I mean, it is embarrassingly absurd.

    Is there any other display of poor sportsmanship on a national team level that lurks in Olympic history?

    Readers comments would be welcome.

    You see, maybe we don't have to find athletes that would be Olympic stars of the future, as your article suggests, but just keep entering them, as we can always find a scoring system which will keep us in the picture.

    You see, this is my plan. There is only one situation, where 4 or more people can win a medal. That is if there is a tie for bronze. All we need to do is train athletes to achieve identical scores for 3rd place, that way we could claim two medals. The real triumph would be to get a three way tie for 3rd, as that would get three medals from one competition.

    Sportsmanship and The Olympic spirit would be safe in our hands.

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  • 14. At 1:20pm on 19 Aug 2008, Ricicles-te-red wrote:

    As a teenager I was north of england champion at long jump, used to beat our current record holder, chris tomlinson, regularly (when he was competing in the north), and won senior county and regional titals as a teenager and representated my country. Unfortunately, coming from a relatively poor background, I couldn't pay for all the latest equipment, could barely afford the 2 hour round trip to the track 4 times per week, and suffered some injuries such as a slipped dics, ligament problems, torn muscles etc. I was injury prone from time to time, but my club did not have the physio facilities at the time, and there wasn't really anything set up in the northwest to help me with my injuries, NHS was inadequate and I couldn't afford private care. All of this forced me to quit no matter how much I didn't want to

    I'm 28 now and I now see atheletes who I competed against and with for many years - often successfully, competing in world and olympic championships (never really competed that well with phillips Idowu though!) and I am receiving NHS physio on my back after being refused it for over a decade resulting in it getting worse, and am now unable to run and am even temporaily under orders not to exercise at all. I have tried to play some sports but recurring injuries which the NHS dealt with inadequately mean that I have only managed low level sport for about 3 of the last 10 years

    I'm not saying I would have made it to the olympics, but I think I just missed out on all the support that other athletes benefitted from, eg lottery etc. I'm a bit resentful that it wasn't available to me, but more resentful that nothing was ever done by our government to help me progress as I'd liked…
    From my era and my personal experience, little was done to spot young talent, even when they were spotted, they were on their own a lot. Not like America who had academies, cholarships etc...

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  • 15. At 3:10pm on 19 Aug 2008, BunyeeYumper wrote:

    Five massive questions at the end there.

    Is it fair? That depends. For example, does the child have a choice or is it entirely forced on them?

    Assuming they can decide not to continue with the monastic life and pursue a less dedicated and more rounded existence, then it becomes a question of desire, determination and dedication. As you improve, and pit yourself against better and stronger opposition, you'll either want to win, and sacrifice more to do it, or you'll think that the effort is not worth the reward and stop.

    Would you be prepared? The start of this answer is the end of the answer of the 'is it fair' question.

    You make the decision based on how much you have to give up and how much you'll gain. Good coaching and good parenting will give you an idea of how good you are, and how much you'll improve by if you work and then you have to make the choice depending on the potential rewards vs current losses.

    Is sports science advantageous? Yes. But only if the individual has the talent and the drive along with the necessary mental toughness. It won't help create the star. It can help nurture the star...

    Can you be puished too hard? Yes. External regulation and observation is needed here to monitor this.

    What price? We can't tell you. We haven't paid anything like the price required as we sit here and read your article. Ask Chris Hoy, Becky Addlington, Germaine Mason etc...

    You might get a better response if you turn the question around too: what wouldn't you pay to be a champion? If I were given the choice of my teenage years or being 14-time Olympic Gold Medalist like Phelps I know what I'd choose...

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  • 16. At 3:17pm on 19 Aug 2008, Kyonko wrote:

    To smilingSpongeMuffin:

    Well said. Thank you.

    To Mr. Nawaz:

    Liu is and will always be a national hero for the Chinese people.

    As for the Sports system, like the educational system, it pushes kids hard in order to succeed. But unlike the relatively well-off Americans, the Chinese has a LOT of competition in each generation. In China, right now, a bachelor's diploma is almost worth nothing on a resume. Obviously that is not the case in the US or in Canada.

    Maybe the mentality is different. After all, we did have at least 1.5 millennia in which an examination system is in place and doing well in school/excelling in martial arts were the only ways to become prosperous.

    I wonder where the Europeans were when this all started?

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  • 17. At 5:19pm on 19 Aug 2008, mweller wrote:

    Smilingspongemuffin,

    I would whole hertedly agree with your comments if the medals table they (US media) show only showed total medals, and no indication of golds, silvers and bronzes. But in fact they only sort by total medals, and show each category--hardly propoganda.

    Perhaps they're just giving due recognition to all the athletes that earn olympic medals--from every country, just not the US? If this were the other way around, I dare say some would post the Yanks are too obsessed with winning, as they sort by golds, and not taking into account the other medals.

    In most sports, you win or loose, and that's the end of. But in the Olympics, they choose to recognize athletes that are 2nd and 3rd. Certainly everyone's goal is to win gold, and yes, it carries more weight, or bragging rights if you wish.

    Put another way, since the Olympics recognize the effort by awarding multiple medals; is it un-olympic to sort a medal table by total medals? I think not. Is it different that most are doing--yes. So, the yanks have a different way of looking at it--who cares? For my bit, I don't. If they sort them by golds, total medals, alphabetical, continent, etc. it is all well and good as far as I am concerned. The information is there for anyone to gleen what they want.

    I just applaude the effort, skill, and for the most part sportsmanship being displayed for a fortnight. If you have to look at such minituae to see propoganda or arrogance, I suppose you can find it.

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  • 18. At 03:15am on 20 Aug 2008, smilingSpongeMuffin wrote:

    MWELLER

    Thank you for taking the time to respond.

    You can recognize all competitors. If you choose to add up medals, then the gold scores 3, silver 2, and bronze 1. This weighting is very much in the favor of those who earn silver and bronze, in terms of achievement.

    As of now, gold is one point, silver 1 point, and bronze 1 point.

    They are in first place by 4 points on this system.

    Britain is 5th.

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  • 19. At 10:55am on 20 Aug 2008, ElmerT wrote:

    I guess it all boils down to how much money the government can pay for the training needs of the athletes and in spotting the great olympians of the future.

    Coming from a poor country with a population of more than Germany, it is quite a pity that not once have we won a gold medal in the olympics, which is largely attributable to the lack of funds. I just hope that the sport schools that you have mentioned would also be set up in our country in preparation for the London 2012.

    Re: Medal standings... I still favor ranking countries by Gold and not by total medals because Gold by far is the most difficult medal to achieve. Hence, the US should change how to show their standings... or are they just embarrassed to show 2nd in overall after a long 1st placer in past olympic events. That's why I salute BBC for ranking countries by gold and not by total medals unlike NBC and CNN.

    Re: BBC and Phelps... I think it would be fine to report on Phelps as he really made history, hence, the unprecedented media mileage. But again, BBC should also feature other olympians, who have excelled in their own games ... and not only British... as the olympics is not to favor one nationality... and that's the freedom of the press and being neutral in reporting (I hope).

    Re: China and it's sports... I quite envy China as they really support their athletes... for those children who have just started... I just hope they know what they are doing and what they are getting into so that at least they could decide for themselves... eventhough they are just children.

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  • 20. At 10:01pm on 20 Aug 2008, Rob Olivier wrote:

    Usually they are 6ft or over, muscles, highly coordinated with an hugry obsessive desire to win.

    Usually 5ft unfocued 5 min wannabees with an aversion to pain and hard work tend not to win Olympic medals

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