Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8

Ok, one last stop on the historical and world-tour of sports dominance before I can spend another 80 weeks talking about the US (ok, maybe only 2 more weeks).  And that stop is in Communist china.  Because, as you’ll see when I quote some statistics below, the Chinese showed some outright ass-kicking dominance in Beijing in 2008, at least in the handful of sports that they targeted.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

In many ways, China represents, in a sense, the logical end result/culmination of everything that had gone before in both the earlier Communist and Socialist sports machines.  Basically, they seem to have taken a bit of the best from each of the systems and integrated them into an optimized whole.  Hopefully this will make more sense in a second and, frankly, I await a flood of Chinese sport secrets to flood the market any day now.

Location and Sociopolitical Rhetoric

Although Communist China is absolutely massive in terms of population, it is a single country.  In a sense this is sort of a melding of the sheer numbers that the Soviets had access to (because of the landmass that the USSR covered) with the single country nature of the GDR. 

Like I said above, in a lot of ways the system that they have developed is the logical end result of what both systems did and how they did it.  To put this in perspective, a quick Google search puts the current population in China at 1.3 billion.  That’s a lot of folks and a lot of potential kids to make into athletes.

I honestly don’t have anything different so say about the sociopolitical climate in China that I didn’t already say when I talked about the former Soviet sports machine or the GDR.  It’s a communist country with everything that entails.  Kids are raised to do what they’re told and forego individual desires for the overall benefit of the country.   And judging from some of the stuff that has come out, they don’t appear to share the ‘love of their children’ that Glenn Pendlay made such a point of regarding the Soviets.

From a purely sporting perspective, China works from an overall philosophy of  “whole-country support for the elite sports system”.  Basically, like the Soviet Union of old, China devotes a great amount of the countries total resources to it’s elite athletes and does it on a country-wide basis.  And the motivation is still assuredly to ‘prove’ the superiority of Communist political ideology with international sports as the proving ground.

China spent a truly absurd amount of money (money that to this author’s mind might have been better used feeding people) to ensure that Beijing was the BIGGEST and BESTEST Olympics ever held in terms of pageantry and everything else. They poured money and resources into facilities and everything else; all to prove that China/Communism is #1.  And while there are certainly many similarities to the Soviet machine of old, there are several key differences.

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Definition of Dominance

In the 2008 Summer Olympics, China won 100 total medals to the US’s 110 but China won 51 gold’s to the US’s 31 (the Russian federation was third with 71 total medals and 23 golds showing that they can still produce even today).   Of some interest, the medals that China won came from the following sports:  diving, gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, ping-pong, badminton, shooting and women’s judo.

It’s a very specialized set of sports that the Chinese focus on but they simply kick absolute ass at them.  They don’t show the breadth of success that the Russians did in their heyday, nor do they target the same events that the GDR did.  But what they focus on they overwhelmingly dominate.  And it’s a pretty specific grouping.

I want to really make the point about dominance here.  If you look at the 2008 Olympic weightlifting results in Beijing you can see that China won 9 of the 15 available gold medals (with a number of world records being set as well if I recall correctly).  Not unlike the situation for the UK in track cycling where UK cyclists took half of the available gold medals.  Given the energy other countries put towards Olympic lifting, that’s serious ass kicking.

In every category they entered a lifter they won gold save one (where one male ‘only’ won silver) and I seem to recall that one of their lifters was removed (to open a slot for a different lifter) because they weren’t assured of medalling in that weight class.   It’s important to realize that OL’ing competition in the modern era limits the number of lifters countries can send so you don’t get the flooding problem of previous decades.  Even the Chinese were limited to how many lifters they could compete so they only put in those that they knew would win.

And at least in the women’s categories (I can’t seem to find actual results in terms of weights lifted), the women didn’t just squeak by to win a medal; most were simply so far ahead of their competition that it was a joke.  In most cases, the Chinese women took their first attempt after everyone else had already finished lifting for the day.  And they came out and just dispatched their weights in perfect form, setting new world records and winning medals with abandon.

The Chinese didn’t simply go to medal, they went to win gold and win they did.  It’s worth noting in this vein that in Olympic lifting, the Chinese primarily dominated in the lighter weight classes for the men, with their heaviest lifter at 85kg.  They had no lifters in the top three heaviest weight classes and this makes some sense given the overall body type of the average Chinese person.  And I’ll touch on the genetics issue in a second. 

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Physiological Factors and Genetics

It’s interesting to note the sports that the Chinese focused on as well as the ones that they ignored.  At the risk of saying something vaguely racist sounding, Asians tend to come with a fairly standard set of body mechanics (yes, I know there are exceptions like Yao Ming), physiologies and genetics.  It’s a very homogeneous group and this sets some clear limits on what sports are even possible for them to perform in.

You might note that they aren’t even trying in sports that seem to have some pretty specialized physiological or physical requirements or determinants for success (like track sprinting or distance running or swimming).  Because even with the numbers, they don’t have the genetics to find a talent to beat a West African in the 100m or an East African in the distances.

And they don’t really have the right body type to be good in something like swimming (where you tend to see tall guys with big feet and hands) or rowing (where being tall is a benefit and there are two distinct weight classes) or cycling (where long legs are important).   They simply don’t put resources into sports that they can’t be dominant in; it would be a pointless waste.

Rather, they tend to be somewhat more skill based sports often with a speed or reflex component (I vaguely recall some assertion that Asian groups might have better reflexes than others but can’t verify nor deny this).  One might argue that sports like gymnastics or even OL’ing benefit from folks who are shorter with certain body types (you don’t tend to see a lot of tall gymnasts and most OL’ers are built along similar lines) and limb lengths which would explain the emphasis and success there.  The Chinese also have a cultural history in both Olympic lifting (stretching to the 50’s) and gymnastics which may partly explain their focus on those two.

But ultimately all of the above factors put China in a situation where they have numbers akin to the old USSR machine but focused on a more targeted set of sports like the GDR did.  Like I said above, it’s kind of the best of both worlds, allowing the Chinese to dominate those specific sports to just an unbelievable degree.

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Training

In any case, the Chinese sports system was more or less adopted from the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and then took on it’s own distinctly Chinese flavor in the 1980’s and into the modern era.  Perhaps the biggest difference compared to the Soviet machine is that  the Chinese sports system seems to be much more centralized than things ever were in the Soviet Union; this is assuredly due to the fact that China is a single country as opposed to the sprawling monstrosity that was the former Soviet Union.  Again, the population is like the old USSR but the sports structure is more like the GDR.

The system is pyramidal in structure with kids starting in sports schools at a young age and being moved up through higher level sports schools, provincial schools and finally national teams as they show success.   The training resources are incredible with 62 training bases spread across 20 provinces divided into 11 high altitude training bases and 51 normal training bases.

Children as young as 4 are put into the system (you can find photos of Chinese kids practicing perfect OL form with broomsticks at a young age (there’s a photo that I have seen and now cannot find showing this).  Think about how that adds up as the kids age.  By the time they are 8, they have 4 years under the bar and here’s an 8 year old Chinese lifter clean and jerking 75kg.

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By the time they are 15, that means they may already have 9-10 year under the bar using perfect technique.  Right about the time they hit puberty and can get really strong when the natural steroid cycle hits (on top of whatever else is added to the system).  Here’s a 15 year old doing 140kg.  That’s 308 lbs.

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So far as I can tell (and please note that there is limited information on this), they tend to be a lot more specific in how they approach training; if they are doing a lot of multi-faceted training like the Soviets did (which recall was out of a goal of creating well-rounded little Communists) with their kids, I’m not aware of it.  Rather, little kids are selected and put into sport with specific training from an early age.  

By the time they are even reaching adulthood, they have a decade or more doing that one sport (which is consistent with some of the ideas on developing expertise that I talked about in Becoming an Expert: Deliberate Practice Part 1 and Part 2).  This is consistent with modern sporting practices, the levels of competition are just so high now that athletes end up specializing early (and it’s worth noting that Kenyans only run, all of the UK’s track cyclists were only cyclists; in most modern sports systems, specialization from more or less day 1 is the name of the game)

As I noted above, due to their massive population, they have a stunning number of people to throw into the sports machine.  Couple with their focus on less sports than the Soviets ever targeted, that means proportionally that many more bodies to throw into the grinder.  And in that sense it’s very similar to the Soviet system of old.

Coaches are highly trained and there are just a ton of them.  In email, Glenn Pendlay told me that there are 3000 paid Olympic lifting coaches in China; consider that traditionally the US has had about 2000 LIFTERS in the sport.  As well, a great deal of analysis into training theory (both general and sport specific) is and has been done to optimize the training.

Which has traditionally been both voluminous and intense (for example, ping-pong players practice 7 hours/day 6 days/week with only 12 days off per year; imagine what athletes in the other sports are doing).  Mind you some feel that the training is more akin to child abuse but if that’s what it takes to succeed, that’s what they do. 

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The Romanian gymnastics system (rebuilt in America by Bela Karolyi who I will mention again) was no different.  If you get bored you Google up plenty of stories of destroyed Chinese athlete who were promised the world and then thrown away when they couldn’t produce or got injured.  China appears to be a true grinder system, perhaps moreso than the Soviet Union ever was. They’ll destroy as many as it takes to win gold.  And they do both.

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Incentives and Motivation

As in the Soviet Union of old, the incentive for kids entering sport (who go through the same sort of methodical testing and training as went on in the Soviet Union) not only comes out of being a cog in the communist machine but from basics such as food, shelter, a better life, etc.  Devoting yourself to sports is simply better than the other options that are available; and there aren’t many.

As an amusing story related to this, as I was writing this series, I ordered a bunch of old issue of Milo from Ironmind and one of them (Volume 2/Issue 1) had a big discussion of Olympic lifting in the US looking at the problems (the same ones that exist now, 17 years later).  In it a story was told about a Chinese female who had been tested and selected for Olympic lifting and the following exchange was described:

She was asked if she wanted to be a weightlifter, her reply,”No!”  “You can get meat three times a day and travel.”  “I want to be a lifter.” she replied.

Meat and travel is incentive enough because it’s better than nothing but rice at every meal and dying in the same rural area you were born in.  Sport for the athletes is not only part of being a cog in a communist/socialist system (where the individual is supposed to relegate their desires for the good of the country) but allows them opportunities that otherwise do not exist for them.  Money, food, glory in the name of the mother country.  That’s a hell of an incentive.

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Doping

It would be naive as hell to think that doping of some sort is not going on in China for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, this is just a reality of high level sports competition; to reach the levels of today’s athlete more or less requires ‘assistance’ and it’s been this way for nearly 4 decades. 

Second is the fact that the Chinese were already known to have cheated by lying about their gymnast’s ages (female Olympic gymnasts must be at least 15 to compete and the Chinese were caught forging birth certificates to send younger girls).   It’s not as if they haven’t demonstrated a willingness to bend the rules to win.

Cheating has been part of sport since about 6 seconds after the first race was run; anybody who thinks it’s not going on now is naive.  And passing the tests means nothing; keep in mind that The Clear and The Cream were used by athletes for half a decade without detection, because the testers can only test what they know to look for.  The only reason that they were ever discovered was because an embittered track coach sent samples to the testers. And suddenly a bunch of 5 year old blood tests started showing positive results.

Perhaps more telling is the fact  that the Chinese often truly dominate in the women’s events (just as the East Germans did in women’s swimming and track and field in the 80’s as I’ll talk about on Friday).  For example, a few years back Chinese runners and swimmers came out of absolutely NOWHERE to just reset the record books (and I know I said above that Chinese people aren’t really built to be great swimmers; yet win they did).  And then they all got popped for using drugs.

And the same basic concept holds here as it did when I discussed the GDR.  Certainly women’s competition has never been as high as men’s (for reasons I’ll touch on when I talk about the US and Olympic Lifting specifically) but there is the main factor that, as I discussed previously, women respond better to certain types of drugs than men.  I’m talking about anabolic steroids.

So generally, whenever you have a coach (such as disgraced running coach Ma Junren) that only seems to produce great female athletes (he said that women had a higher pain tolerance and attributed the results to turtle blood soup and insane training loads), that’s a big red flag that doping is involved for the very same reason.  A coach’s system should work on men and women alike for all practical purposes.  If they are only producing top female athletes that usually means drugs are involved because of the increased response.

Regardless, to think that the Chinese aren’t doping on some level (some feel that even gene doping may be coming into its own although it would be hard to see how athletes who were of the right age in 2008 could have been gene doped 16 years earlier) would be naive even if we don’t know the exact form the doping is taking at this point in time.  But now this is turning into a different article series entirely.

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Summing Up

So again, it’s the same basic story as before.  A situation where, influenced by issues of location, culture , politics and genetics, we  see a system similar to not only the Soviet Sports Machine but also the GDR and even Bulgaria.   In a sense, the Chinese approach to sport reflects the logical end-result/melding of everything came before.  The massive population of the former USSR, the centralized system of doping and training of the GDR, the ‘win at all costs’ of the Bulgarian OL approach.

Coupled with monstrous incentives of the ‘live a better life’ kind and all channeled into a select handful of sports (after heavy selection and testing) with an amazing support system. Communist China may not target many sports but the sports they do target, they absolutely dominate.  And I expect that they will continue to do so for the forseeable future.

Source
The Present and Future of Chinese National Centralized Sports System by Dr. Mianfang Ruan, presentation given at the Central Virginia Sports Performance 2011 seminar.

And yes, finally, that’s that.  At this point you can probably imagine what I’ll be focusing on when I finally turn my attention to the United States and Olympic lifting.  But, as always, there will be a lot more for me to cover.  I’m not sure this is ever going to be finished but I will get to the end eventually.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 9.