DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Competitive sport is war without gunfire - those words appear in a paper that was co-written by someone who should know: Fan Hang(ph), a Chinese academic and former national swimmer. In order to wage sporting battles, Beijing has poured money into training elite athletes. Even as market forces drive China's economy, its sports system remains a part of another era.
In the first of a weeklong series on sports in China, NPR's Louisa Lim profiles a school known as the cradle of Chinese gymnastics.
Unidentified Female #1: Seven minutes...
LOUISA LIM: Calls out a girl, as sweat drips down her brow onto a watch between her hands on the floor. She's the timekeeper, counting down a 10-minute-long handstand for this group of child gymnasts. Here they're part of a glorious tradition. Three Olympic gold medalists got their start doing handstands at this very school in Xiantao, Hubei Province.
All the staff here work for the General Administration of Sports. And Headmaster Tian Hua says the school is an integral part of the sports system.
Mr. TIAN HUA (Headmaster): (Through translator) Our Chinese sports system is like a pyramid. We're the base, the fattest part of the pyramid. The middle of the pyramid is the professional provincial teams, and the national team is the apex. Our main role is to choose future athletes.
Unidentified Female #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: And that process can be brutal, even at this stage. China's sports schools are part of the machinery of state, designed to produce gold medalists no matter the human cost.
Unidentified Male #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: I've trained until I cried many times, one small boy tells me. Sometimes we have to stand on our hands for half an hour.
Unidentified Male #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: It's only hard at first, another boy says breezily. Then you get used to it.
Mr. ZHENG HUNSHENG (Coach): (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Coach Zheng Hunsheng, however, denies the children have to do half-hour handstands, although he admits that used to be the case. Their young bones are too soft to withstand such punishing exercise, he says.
Gymnastics - in any country - is a tough and painful sport, and Beijing's sports machine has generally had a bad press. Yet some argue that professional Chinese athletes are in some way more fortunate than their Western counterparts, particularly as they are paid a government salary.
Ms. SUSAN BROWNELL (University of Missouri): Financially, their life is probably a bit easier than most athletes', at least in the U.S. Most Olympic athletes in the U.S. are still supporting themselves by college scholarships or other jobs. The result in China is that athletes can concentrate fully on their training.
LIM: Susan Brownell is a sports anthropologist from the University of Missouri, who actually trained as a college athlete both in the U.S. and in China.
Ms. BROWNELL: Life seemed a little bit easier as a Chinese athlete. They seemed to me a little bit more pampered because of the fact that you did have people who cared about your physical and psychological well-being taking care of you. If I needed a massage, I could get a massage. You know, in comparison, in the U.S. a lot was left to me.
LIM: Even though this remote gymnastics school, home to around 100 children age 4 to 9, is a beneficiary of state largesse. It's gained funding of $14 million over the past decade.
Indeed, China gears its system towards elite athletes. Investing in sport for the masses takes a distant second place. One official quoted by Xinjua News Agency concluded each Olympic gold medal cost Beijing around $7 million. With its top-down, centralized control, China's sports system is the last bastion of the socialist planned economy.
According to Xiong Xiaozheng from the Centre for Olympics Studies at Beijing Sports University, any large-scale reform has been delayed by the need to win medals at this year's Olympics.
Mr. XIONG XIAOZHENG (Beijing Sports University): (Through translator) Winning glory at the Olympics is costly. If these programs were run under the market economy, competition results would suffer.
(Soundbite of children)
LIM: Back at the school, as the pint-size gymnasts do exercises in the playground, Li Shukui watches anxiously. He is visiting his 6-year-old twin girls. They speak once a week over the phone since he enrolled them into this boarding school. Their mother also is too far away to visit. It's hard, he admits, but worth it to fulfill his dream.
Mr. LI SHUKUI (Parent): (Through translator) When I see Chinese athletes winning gold medals overseas, I'm so moved I can hardly describe it. So I'd like my daughters to win a gold medal to win glory for the country.
LIM: That's the allure of gold and glory. For that, hundreds of thousands of parents press their precious only children into lives of sporting servitude. Li Shukui says if his twins fail at gymnastics, he'll move them to diving.
These words are a tacit admission: On the battlefield that is competitive sport, these children are little more than cannon fodder.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Xiantao, Hubei Province, China.
(Soundbite of music)
AMOS: To see what life is like for children inside a Chinese gymnastics school, you can view an audio slideshow on our Web site, NPR.org. And from pint-sized gymnasts to retirees, tomorrow we'll meet some who sacrificed everything for the sport.