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Understanding China's gymnastics powerhouse

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Ollie Williams | 10:07 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010

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?"

He Kexin

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.


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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.

Deng Linlin

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."


  • Comment number 1.

    Good to see that Orientalist tropes haven't gone out of style! It's not surprising that you can't 'imagine what she's going to face back home' because you, like so many Western journalists, haven't bothered to learn a foreign language (as have countless journalists from the Global South) and actually gotten to know a different culture firsthand. It is sufficient to stereotype over a billion people based on preconceived and frankly erroneous tropes.

    I particularly like how you compound these stereotypes by offering anecdotes of the 'irrational' Asian gymnasts crying and the 'rational' Western athletes smiling. Right. No British, American, German or other Western athlete ever cried when they got the silver, did they? Or cried when they lost the World Cup final or European Cup final. They just took it in their stride and were ecstatic to have come second place. No young British sportswoman or man ever felt 'significantly shameful of the fact they have failed to live up to what they believed, and were told, they could do'. That would only be 'Chinese culture'.

    And then there are our six year old children playing rugby being coached to 'hit hard' when tackling his opponent, their fathers on the side of the pitch shouting 'Smash him!' When they are older and their ear is half-ripped off in a match, we tape it and send them back on the pitch. When their finger is dislocated, we relocate it and tape it and send them back on the pitch. When there is well-documented evidence that head injuries sustained from playing rugby can leave permanent brain damage, we don't insist our children wear scrum caps. Perhaps a little reflexivity is called for when discussing the brutality of training regimes.

    Having spent long periods of my life in China, and actually speaking Mandarin and reading their newspapers, I can assure you that there is a great deal of not only love, but also compassion for their athletes. When one of their gymnasts does not live up to the hype created around her or him - Imagine that! Hype created around a national sportsperson! - some people certainly feel that that gymnast has let the nation down. And just as many feel proud of their effort and heartbroken for that young person who had spent years of blood, sweat and tears to achieve a dream, only to fall desperately short. And the press reflects this range of reactions, sometimes all in one article.

    The point is twofold. First, you exaggerate the differences between our cultures and obscure the similarities. Second, you ignore the fact that within cultures, there is actually a significant diversity among the people. Sports journalists need to start recognizing the complexity of our cultural lives, instead of reducing them to overly generalized talking points. The French are moody, unpredictable and passionate. The Germans are cold, calculating and boring. Really? I think you can all do better.

  • Comment number 2.

    Why can't we appreciate the beautiful gymnastics performed by the Chinese through their hard work? Instead, we are hinting at abuses of underaged children. Bravo! Evan crying for disappointment can indicate so many complicated things. And every single speculation leads to negativity. So predictable that I had to laugh. What a real surprise that another blog here is full of bias and attacks of asian countries, particularly China? And I thought it should be independent and impartial. Well, a good lesson for me.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree, and this is not just against Ollie as a lot of BBC guys seem to push stories down this "they are so different route", if you were to spend your life in the UK and never get over to this side of the world you would just imagine prison camps of faceless, cruel individuals forcing kids to jump through rings of fire - the fact is gymnastics is big business so it is high profile and success is something of a national obsession and this means that youngsters are given a high profile, probably too early in life. Having said that stories of lynch mobs back home is just misguided, and it is not as though we have much room to comment when we have football clubs paying GBP20m+ for teenagers and then having them live under a constant media spotlight.

  • Comment number 4.

    Chinese will win the gymnastic gold medals again, no doubt, just like British are going to win more rowing and cycling golds. Big deal, you fall down you pick yourself up again. Says me...

  • Comment number 5.

    Londonirishlad - eloquently argued. We in the liberal (and not-so-liberal) like to see things in black and white terms, and certain countries like China fall conveniently into the 'villain' category. Anyone who visits China with their eyes open and makes even a cursory attempt to engage with Chinese society will see that children are hugely valued, and in many ways much more so than here. Yes Chinese society is harsher than in Western Europe, yes it can seem brutal and uncaring at times - children have to grow up and fend for themselves much earlier there, as they do in much of Asia. But it's too easy to focus on these differences while ignoring the ways in which it is fairer than our own society. And it's pretty unpleasant of us to criticise different cultural practices that stem from the fact that they are, essentially, a country which suffers from extreme poverty, the likes of which we in Europe haven't experienced for a century. While we certainly can't excuse things like cruelty to children on the grounds of 'cultural difference,' we have to resist seeing everything in blanket terms. Gymnasts and athletes Liu Xiang are idolised in China the way we idolise footballers - they and their families enjoy great privileges compared to many other Chinese people, and are seen as representatives of the entire nation. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that they occasionally break down in tears when they don't achieve the very highest levels.

  • Comment number 6.

    Brilliant Londonirishlad!!!! Couldn't agree more!! The quality of journalism generally is on the decline. However, hasn't it always been a form of propaganda anyway, hence stereotyping and exaggerating differences between cultures. By using sport to get this message across it catches most readers unaware and unconsciously forms biased representations in the mind of outgroups, i.e. other nationalities, resulting in, well, racism, prejudice, xenophobia and fear. Perfect conditions for control. Sums up most of what you read in the press these days anyway

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree with Londonirishlad about the sweeping generalizations in this story. It's well-meant but hardly realistic.

    Have a look at the coverage from the Olympics, and the GB women's quad, for instance. What sort of faces did they have as they accepted their silver medals... they were almost reduced to tears, if not actually so.

    Athletes around the world aren't so very different. When your expectation is gold, nothing else will do, or matter.

  • Comment number 8.

    Just because Tweddle won a gold because her superior rivals fell the author shouldnt feel so smug. Everyone knows the Olympics is the most important while thw worlds happens every 2 and sometimes 1 year. Anyway China's women gymnast is not as strong as the men so any gold is a bonus really.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice one londonirishlad. Being a former international gymnast and an international level coach, to understand what happens on the world stage you must first understand what happens in a gymnaasium. There are multiple issues here and i would like to touch upon 2.

    1. there are significant socio-cultural and socio-economic issues to be addressed which cannot and should not be addressed in a blog...they are far too complex.

    2. if there is an elite club in your area and you take the time to go along you will see training practices which are used in Eastern Europe, China, Japan or in fact anywhere where they have an elite gymnastics programme being carried out. It is a physical impossibility to achieve what gymnasts achieve without being exposed to extreme training methods. As daft as it sounds it would in fact be more unethical of a coach to coach a gymnast the most complex of skills without first physically and mentally preparing them to achieve this.

    I remember distinctly Matt Pinsent's article on his sojourn to Beijing with a Chinese girl's face wincing in pain as her legs were stretched beyond her ears. The fact is you cannot expect the human body to achieve super human feats of athleticism without going through super human feats of training. Many would argue that Matt's colleague on board Steve Redgrave should not have been allowed to row his last 2 Olympics given he had developed both ulcerative collitis and diabetes. Would he have been able to face the press with a smile on his face had he not won those games? Would he have been in tears himself? Given Matt Pinsent was in tears after winning his last Olympics I think it only fair to appreciate the delicate state He Kexin would be in having failed to achieve her dream. Gymnasts are the age they are for a reason...the body is not designed to withstand the kind of pressure it takes when it gets older - hence why Beth Tweddle only trains on 2 pieces of apparatus - hence why rugby players and footballers rarely play beyond 35.

    If you want to see what happens in a Chinese gymnasium pop along to one of the clubs that is responsible for producing the national team's gymnasts. I assure you, you will see the same training practices being carried out in a demanding yet caring environment. The fact that many of these clubs employ Eastern European or Asian coaches will testify to this fact as will British Gymnastics investment in these very coaching methods at the very highest level! I'll leave you with a rare quote from Linford Christie which actually made some sound sense. After s frosty reception at a press conference he stated "you expect us to produce super human feats on the track and then 10 seconds later you expect us to be normal human beings". Human's don't work in such ways, let alone when the weight of a nation is placed on such young shoulders. Perhaps we should consider what this girl has been through emotionally to get to where she is before we cast aspersions about what she will face upon her return home. If Britain suddenly start winning a girth of gymnastics medals in the next few years then Louis' reaction will change from a happy go lucky impression of his personality to one of doom and gloom if he or his team mates don't live up to their expectations. Just look at English football and rugby national teams...hardly bursting at the seams with joy!!!

  • Comment number 10.

    If Alonso lost the world F1 title I doubt he will be beaming. Top athletes has high expectation. Also ran sportsmen and women who achieve higher than expected can afford to smile. Ollie need to learn more about people and sports.

  • Comment number 11.

    Puaff! Again subject to the prejudices of Western supremacy, even as far as emotions are concerned. We see Western sportsmen and women crying all the time, and worse, as they lose, especially on the final stretch. Tennis, football... Just remember the World Cup final match, and the reaction of the losing Dutch team... You needn't go to the Far East to meet sportspeople as human beings, with all their frustrations and sadness as they lose. But of course there is the cliche when you come to the Chinese or the Russian, there is always a "dark side" with them and their training Hu! Fortunately for the Arabs they don't produce top athletes for the moment, so they (and us!) are spared of so much cheap comment.

  • Comment number 12.

    Everyone is slating the author here and, having only read the first half of the blog I would have agreed. But he did go on to state the other side of the argument, like Trevor Low's comments about the "caring" Chinese coaches. Did you all read the whole article before launching into the usual 'ignorant Western press' diatribes?

  • Comment number 13.

    Good reality check for China but, be assured, they will come back stronger! So, all to the good.

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi all - thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Londonirishlad - the "can't imagine" comment was included as that, coupled with the reaction of Deng Linlin on winning silver versus Louis Smith's, is what prompted me to write the piece. However, for many people in the West, it is hard to imagine what life in China is like (not just for gymnasts, either), because it is still seen and often portrayed as somewhere that is closed-off and secretive, whether or not that is actually the case. I'd argue that public awareness in the UK, for example, of the way much of Chinese society works is fairly low. Some of Trevor Low's comments, above, address that point.

    You're absolutely right that the Chinese experience with gymnasts being built up with hype, then struggling to match it, is very similar to that experienced in other sports, like football for example, in other countries like the UK. That's why this piece sets out to understand why gymnastics has a sway and a place in Chinese sporting culture that it doesn't in the UK. Moreover, gymnastics as a sport tends to involve younger athletes than most other sports. It's easier, I would argue, to deal with the pressures of top-level sport if you're in your mid-20s than if you're 15 or 16 years old.

    And of course there are differences within societies. I don't believe this article suggests that "all Chinese people" are anything. It addresses why China, as a country, has such a different approach to gymnastics (in terms of the scale of its gymnastics enterprise and the results, and consequently the pressure on its top gymnasts), compared with the likes of Britain.

    Apple - The only hinting at abuse of under-age children is contained in the quote from the reporter which sparked this piece, arguably (though not explicitly) in the Daily Mail link, and in Sir Matthew Pinsent's report, also linked. Trevor Low was quite explicit in his belief that Chinese gymnasts are not harshly treated, and makes it plain that he believes the Chinese system takes great pains to assess its coaches and ensure the welfare of the children they coach.

    Britzabroad - The truth is, gymnastics in China is very different! Participation in gymnastics is on a different level entirely, with different results and different pressures as a result, and an entirely different culture around the sport. The point is indeed that there is sometimes a Western perception that "cruel individuals force kids to jump through rings of fire", as you put it. This article does not endorse that view, but the sight of tiny He Kexin quivering in front of journalists after her performance is a starting point for exploring where that view comes from, because those scenes are the ones which sometimes trigger those comments, as alluded to above.

    Jerry - I'd be very surprised if China don't win several gymnastics gold medals in 2012, but I found Trevor's comments about the gradual inroads being made into gymnastics' traditional place in Chinese society to be interesting, and perhaps broadly comparable to the travails of cricket (or even snooker) to attract younger talent in the UK, faced with increased competition for youngsters' time. That said, whether China will ever be unseated as the major gymnastics superpower is another matter.

    ukworldtraveller - As stated just above, I've tried to ensure that the criticisms of Chinese society in this article are clearly attributed and don't stem from the article itself, and are also challenged and explored by some of the contributors, such as Trevor Low. No mention of poverty and cultural difference above is made with direct criticism of China in mind. However, some of the differences you mention go to make gymnastics a game of higher stakes in China, where falling from the uneven bars can mean more than it may do for a British competitor, if not in terms of raw emotional response and gut-wrenching disappointment (witness Louis Smith falling off the pommel horse at the 2009 Worlds, in London) then in terms of ensuring the sort of future livelihood you refer to when saying the top gymnasts are idolised in China. It's apparent that staying at the top of that sport in China means a lot more than it does in Britain.

    Mat - Propaganda for what, or whom? The majority of the above article is dedicated to exploring why China is such a prevalent force in gymnastics, is it propaganda for them?

    Gordy748 - Of course you're right, Chinese gymnasts are far from the only athletes in the history of sport to find a silver medal somewhat underwhelming. But the GB women's quad weren't all teenagers; Katherine Grainger was 32 at the time, I think. As I say above, gymnastics is unique because of the stresses and strains it places on very young competitors, and being a gymnast in China at such a high level adds more pressure to that. It's a tough environment in which to compete. But tough environments in themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, and you can't assume that China is therefore doing something wrong.

    Hizento - In my previous article I made reference to Beth Tweddle winning gold after both of her Chinese rivals had fallen, as follows:

    "It's impossible to say where the gold medal would have gone had both He and Huang remained on the bars, but few observers would have been able to look beyond them, and Tweddle is well aware. Having failed so utterly with so much at stake, the Chinese duo will come back with even more firepower next time, and the Liverpudlian must prepare for that. She cannot rely on lightning striking twice in 2012."

    I don't believe that's smug. Beth will know she was handed a great deal of luck on that day, but she still had to go out and win, and commenters on that article believed I'd been unduly harsh on her for saying what I did above. I must agree with you that the Chinese men once again looked very impressive, but I don't think you can say either of the teams are at all weak! As for Fernando Alonso, he'd be pretty unimpressed I am sure, but I find it unlikely the strapping 29-year-old will look quite as timid and upset as He Kexin did if he loses the world title.

    aidoire - Yes, a full analysis of the sociological implications of different world cultures regarding the way international gymnastics works would take me a trilogy, let alone a blog, but I don't think that means it shouldn't be discussed in broader brushstrokes, even if may allow one or two generalisations to creep in (I've tried not to let that happen where possible).

    Having not seen what Sir Matthew Pinsent saw, I obviously can't judge what was going on. The mention of, and link to, his report is included by way of providing context for what is an oft-expressed opinion among Western audiences and media. But as I've said above, I would hope nothing in this blog implies that I personally believe there exists, or have evidence for, the widespread mistreatment of Chinese gymnasts in their home country.

    Enrique - I don't think China's different approach to gymnastics makes it a "Dark Side", unless you mean simply that it is not often illuminated. Chinese gymnastics is not well understood in some other parts of the world and does sometimes lead to reports like those I linked to above. However, that does not mean those reports should condemn an entire country or be taken as gospel for every gymnasium in China. To read the above article as though that is the case would be unfair.

    On which note, thanks to smellslikesalmon for acknowledging the views of Trevor Low, who very eloquently put the case for Chinese gymnastics being in advance of almost all (if not all) other programmes worldwide, and just as caring as any other about its gymnasts. As you say, I hope those comments are taken into consideration, as the points he makes are crucial to the reading of the piece.

    In any case, thank you all for the feedback, it's very interesting to hear your responses. The one thing I'd ask is not to read too many negatives into the above piece just because you expect them to be there. For example, the contrast between Louis Smith and Deng Linlin is more intended to imply that British Gymnastics has much more to be happy about with a silver medal right now than its Chinese equivalent, because of the different levels of progress the two teams are at, than to imply criticism of Deng or China.

  • Comment number 15.

    I do wonder if some people here actually looked past the first few paragraphs of Ollie's blog. I thought it was a good and well balanced article on the whole.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    You should know better than to open the can of worms marked 'China'! Having lived in South Korea I know that there is great national pride in the region and it's difficult for a Westerner to understand. If you lived in the Far East you will see things that for us seem uncivilised but as was previously mentioned, it's not a case of right and wrong.

    You go on to mention the Japanese athlete crying for an hour. By casting this suggestive slur on Japan, I can't help but think this was a very stereotypical view of the Far East. Personally, at the risk of being berated by pro-Chinese readers, I think some of your views on China are valid, but don't drag Japan into it! If you visited the Far East trip of China, South Korea and Japan you will see they have similarities but also huge differences: as different as the UK, France and Greece. I'll think you've learned nowadays you can't criticise China without being bombarded by the waiting mob!
    I'm just glad you didn't mention South Korea, cheers!

  • Comment number 18.

    Couldn't agree with the comment below more. Subjectivity doesn't look inward for fear of seeing a mirror.

  • Comment number 19.

    I remember watching the GB womens rowing team losing the gold medal to China at the Beijing Olympics and they were all in tears with Steve Redgrave consoling them. How do you explain that one Ollie?

  • Comment number 20.

    I hope they win another gold medal and I don’t even like Chinese food, except curries.

  • Comment number 21.

    Ollie, l probably started watching gymnastics before you were born and I have to break it to you that it is quite common for top particularly young female gymnasts to cry when they fell or didnt achieve what they aim for. I've seen Russians, Romanians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, American girls all broke down in tears, in fact I've don't see many major competitions were that never happen. It didnt quite happen to British gymnasts because Britain werent expect to do well anyway so any medal is a plus. If you taken the time to watch the coaches you will notice team USA has eastern European so maybe their system is better than homegrown? In diving the Canadian national team is coached by the Chinese, I don't hear criticism of inhumane treatment there.

  • Comment number 22.

    Interesting article. Some tremendous contributions - particularly London Irish.

    The point about tears following failure and the audiences reaction is an interesting one. I think our reaction to it is an emotive one and is usually determined by the person who is crying. An adult crying because of failure does not get the same reaction to a child crying for the same reasons. It is a fact that many female gymnasts appear childlike in their physical appearance and our reaction to their tears automatically follows the path that we take for a child crying. If we saw a rugby prop crying over losing I think many of us would be more inclined to laugh. Entirely different reactions to the same event. In The first we are probably looking for someone to blame for the distress caused to someone unable to defend themselves, the second we find funny because it is such a visible contradiction of appearances. The emotions are the same in the person doing the crying, yet not the same in the onlooker.

  • Comment number 23.

    Hizenton - You seem very worked up by the notion of crying, but I'm worried that you fundamentally misunderstand the argument of the article regarding it. Your interpretation of the above seems to be that I've said only Chinese gymnasts cry, and Chinese gymnasts crying is appallingly wrong.

    I've actually quite explicitly not said either of those things, and would draw your attention to the paragraph mentioning Japan's Mai Yamagishi near the bottom, and the one below that. Many, many gymnasts cry. Poor old Elisabeth Seitz, the German gymnast who fell from the bars not once but twice during her World Championships routine, almost had me crying afterwards, let alone her.

    You seem insistent on this comparison with Katherine Grainger and co. While I still don't think a teenage gymnast is as equipped to deal with failure (where failure in this instance is a silver medal) as a 32-year-old, yes, there is something in that. Both the GB women's quad and the Chinese gymnasts are teams at the top of their respective sports, to the point of being expected to win gold. The British public has come to associate rowing - and track cycling, for that matter - with a stream of British gold medals, just the same as China expects that of its gymnasts. This article is about why, for China, gymnastics has that reputation to live up to, where that strength comes from, and the associated pressures.

  • Comment number 24.

    Apologies for the rogue "n" - I do of course mean Hizento (comments 8/10/19/21).

  • Comment number 25.

    I feel that Ollie has been unfairly misinterpreted here. His Blog (and it's a BLOG, not a thesis!) has made its observations objectively without leaning towards any stereotypes (or tropes as one commentator put it).

    How the article is seen as one lampooning Chinese methods is beyond me. Many of the comments made here have leapt to the conclusion that the Blog is fundamentally anti-China and have looked no further. The balanced viewpoints expressed in the Blog are ignored and only the negative views drawn on, resulting in quite an acerbic backlash. It seems that many of the commentators have an ax of their own to grind...

    Fair play Ollie, I feel you've given all sides of this subject a good airing. Thanks for the great article!

  • Comment number 26.

    @ Ollie.. 'As for Fernando Alonso, he'd be pretty unimpressed I am sure, but I find it unlikely the strapping 29-year-old will look quite as timid and upset as He Kexin did if he loses the world title.'

    Yes yes, just like the strapping John Terry reduced to a baby after missing the PK against Man U in the CL final, or Gareth Southgate before him or Gazza who actually cried on the pitch in the middle of a game that reqd. Lineker to ask Bobby Robson to 'have a word' with the overgrown kid...

  • Comment number 27.

    michaelpeterds - Not sure Paul Gascoigne is the greatest example of your average mid-20s adult sporting figure and their ability to deal with pressure. Yes, other sportspeople cry, and it'd be foolish to suggest gymnastics has some kind of monopoly on distressed athletes.

    While even Gascoigne wasn't on the same level of misery as He or Deng, it's important to remember that it's more my fellow journalist's reaction to He crying, and the interpretation of Chinese society and China's gymnastics programme with which that reaction is associated, that is the focus here. It's that reaction and Chinese gymnastics which the article goes on to discuss in greater detail, not the act of crying itself.

  • Comment number 28.

    Thanks for the response Ollie - as I said originally I was not really having a go at you or the blog/article - more about the fact that I have read a few articles on the BBC recently where the journalist is (or at least is pretending to be) incredulous about other countries culture or systems and pushing the reader towards an emotive response without presenting a total summary of the facts (in fairness your article balanced out toward the end). One thing living abroad has taught me is that there are far more similarities than differences and I honestly feel that we should be looking to learn from successful nations rather than label them as cruel/robotic/primitive etc.
    As others have pointed out similar systems have existed across Europe and the US and the the fact that a young girl would get upset when losing in those circumstances isn't really a story IMO - I guess the point I took umbrage with was the "Can you imagine what she's going to face back home?" comment - which insinuates (wrongly) that she will be castigated - Gymnasts in China are highly admired and respected and the reaction at home will be nothing like a certain David Beckham recieved back in England when he made a mistake at a major championship.


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