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I. THE PRESENT: STRUGGLING TO DELAY THE INEVITABLE
EIJING -- If a storm of emotions hides somewhere beneath the surface of Guo Jingjing, it does not show. Maybe she has created an entire world inside her head -- one with hopes, fears, ambitions, dreams -- living the life in there she is not allowed out here. Or maybe she is actually an empty vessel, which is how she seems climbing the stairs at the national diving team headquarters in Beijing. Taking a left at the Olympic countdown clock hanging on the wall at the landing between the first and second floors, she floats down the hall, her face soft and serene, her feet making precious little noise.
About 700 miles to the west, in Yinchuan, the sun is rising, bathing a mountain valley in light. Peaks tower above a film crew, funneling the wintry wind into their faces. Tian Liang, 28 and handsome, also a two-time Olympic diving gold medalist and world champion, pulls the olive drab coat he borrowed from the prop department tight against his body. In his hand is the script for the day and a shooting schedule, so he knows exactly what he's doing for the next few months. Of course, he could change that entire schedule on a whim. He's the clock; a few days ago the entire operation halted because he flew to Beijing. All around him are the flotsam and jetsam of a television-making operation: lights, cameras, a legion of personal assistants. One woman fixes his makeup. Another sprays fake sweat on his brow. In his head, he goes over the next scene. "When I was doing sports, I always had a dream of having one week where I'm totally in charge of myself," he says. "When this day finally came, I had no idea how to choose things. But it's good now. I can make my own decisions."
Two athletes, their lives going in different directions. Once, they were inseparable, their names even combined in the tabloids, a la Brangelina, to form the Chinese word for "sparkling." Once, before a changing world pulled them apart, they were best friends. Once, many say, they were lovers.
She understands what that clock really means. It's not just counting down the days until the beginning of the Olympics, it's also counting down the days until the end of the Soviet-style Chinese sports system that has been her life. For more than a decade, the Sports Bureau has been fighting extinction, losing a thousand tiny battles but not yet losing the war. Exhibit A: Zhou's reaction to Tian and Guo. Both were banned by the national team after the Athens Olympics for excessive commercial activities. They'd been in front of every camera, working on private endorsement deals. Both realized their mistake. Tian said he made a self-criticism, the Communist tool of humiliation and control through which people are forced to confess crimes real or imagined. Zhou said Tian did not. She said Guo did make such a self-criticism and earned her place back. Guo said she did not. There is much confusion. But Guo is here, and Tian is not. She was controllable, and he was not. Zhou's job is to control, to hold things together long enough to win a bunch of medals, one more time, with feeling.
The future is uncertain, and the clock reminds them it is also unstoppable. At the top of the stairs, just down the hall, the minutes and hours and days slide away, one after another. It's the first thing the coaches face every morning, a countdown to upheaval.
"I don't look at the clock," Zhou says.
The director makes his final call. The actress, sensing a riptide beneath the surface, leans in and asks softly, "Are you OK?" Then ... action! The actress hugs Tian, whispering into his ear. Cut! The actress pulls back immediately to see if Tian is crying. He is.
"Family members. Lovers."
Ah, yes. Lovers. He and Guo were the most famous couple in China, on magazine covers, in tabloids. They coyly refused to acknowledge their relationship officially, but everyone knew. Still, they couldn't survive a sports system clinging to the past. A changing economy was killing state-run programs. Tian was an acolyte of this changing economy. He had to go.
Guo was allowed back on the team, living in her dorm room, her daily schedule doled out, like meds at the hospital. He retired and stepped out into the world alone. At first, the possibilities paralyzed him. He slept in. But after a while he opened a diving school, not for future champions but for young boys and girls who loved to dive. He filmed a TV show, then a commercial, then enrolled in college, then withdrew to tape this television series. Even when choosing his own career, he found himself drawn to scripted reality. Old habits die hard. He thought if he could do well in another field, gold-medal well, that would show everyone. Coaches. Family members. Lovers. "I found myself very unhappy," he says. "So right now I'm myself. I'm trying to be happy every day."
Sitting at that conference table 700 miles away, Guo thinks about him. They haven't spoken in a long time. They don't have much in common anymore. He's a dreamer, always making plans, trying to divine the road ahead. He is still the future of China. She is the past. She doesn't know what she will do today in training. She does not complain about giving up most of her lucrative endorsement earnings. She has no career in mind after diving. He is very far away, in a cold, remote valley, pretending to chop down a fake tree, walking a rented ox, damn near in Mongolia. She is just down the hall from an Olympic countdown clock. There are 273 days to go.
"We chose different paths," Guo says.
II. THE PAST: THE RISE AND FALL OF A SPORTS SYSTEM
A PROMISE MADE
It's just before 10 a.m. Light floods through the large windows of Ma Yanhong's Beijing apartment, reflecting off the hardwood floors. There's a flat-screen TV across from the couch. Middle-aged but still muscular, the former gymnast laughs at the blown-up photo of herself on the uneven bars that hangs near the kitchen. "The big me," she says.
There weren't always picture windows and plasma televisions. Once, long before she was among the most beloved people in the country, there was barely enough to eat. Ma was 2 years old in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution, a decade of turmoil unleashed by Chairman Mao to solidify power, replaced hope with fear. Urban youths, including her sister, were shipped to the countryside to toil in the fields. Red Guard vandals destroyed thousands of years of priceless art. The universities closed. An entire generation of Chinese children missed out on an education. An entire generation of Chinese athletes was lost, too. With trophyism seen as capitalistic, winning a medal was not glorious; it was a crime against the revolution. The once-efficient sports system atrophied.
Army gymnasts didn't go to many classes. Those didn't matter. Life was planned. Mechanics only needed to know machinery, doctors only needed to know medicine, and athletes only needed to know sports, even if there were no international competitions, just day after day of training. But that was about to change. Everything was about to change.
In 1976, a videotape of the Montreal Olympics arrived, yet another international competition the Chinese had missed. Most of the Chinese kids were awed by the talent of the international gymnasts. Not Ma. She saw the routines and realized, for the first time in her life, she need not always be just a cog. She tried to keep a straight face. But in her mind, a switch had been flipped. She was reborn.
A month after those games ended, on Sept. 9, Chairman Mao died. The soldiers were encouraged to cry openly. Ma tried but couldn't force out a tear. She sensed another revolution was coming to China, one that would benefit her. Universities reopened. The displaced youth migrated home. And, slowly, the sports machine began to sputter back to life, energized by a vital new mission. It, too, was reborn.
New Premier Deng Xiaoping pointed China toward the future. Part of that, he decreed, was showing China's might in international sporting competitions, beating the world at its own games. Nothing was too extreme, not even matching up star athletes to breed bigger stars, as the government did with Yao Ming's parents. All of China eyed the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, held in Fort Worth, Texas. This would be the first test.
In Fort Worth, Ma became a legend. She won gold on the uneven bars, China's first individual world championship in a sport other than table tennis. Her success was one of the first victories of Deng's revolution. Citizens wept, gathered in the streets of China to celebrate, wrote Ma letters of gratitude. On the plane ride home, Ma sat in the front, the gigantic seat swallowing her, so she could lead the procession. She was the one the people wanted to see.
More medals followed. Her fame grew. Finally, in 1984, she returned to the United States. Ma was so different from the na´ve girl who'd landed in Fort Worth five years earlier. She'd wanted to retire in 1983, but with The People's Republic of China making its first Olympics appearance, her coaches asked one more thing of her, for the motherland. She agreed, but kept a calendar in her room to count down the days. In her last competition, she won gold at the Los Angeles Games. Then she went back to the Olympic Village, and had a teammate cut off her ponytail, the one her coach made her and her fellow gymnasts wear. With her career finally over, she had mustered a single act of rebellion. She'd paid her dues. Now it was her turn.
The system kept its promise, propelling her from star athlete to entrepreneur. It allowed her to leave the country to earn a good living abroad as a coach. It gave her access to the best apartments and, when she returned to China in 1994, she opened a restaurant. She worked in television, and invested in business. Still, even she knows the system must change. She is glad, but also mourns what will be lost. China's best shot at winning the most Olympic medals is upon it. "Sports is the last leftover of the planned economy," she says. "It's still socialist. But this is the last moment. If you grab it, you will get it. If you don't, it will be gone forever."
INSIDE THE MACHINE: HOTEL LOBBY CONFIDENTIAL
Rhoads' face lights up. He claps giddily. When Miller heads up the elevator, Rhoads joins Big Xu at a table. He's an American and, before he started his own company, Nike's first China Hand. For years, he and Xu have been friends, getting close after Rhoads met a 16-year-old Yao Ming more than a decade ago. It was Rhoads who helped bring the first elements of a market economy to Chinese sports. He has been pushing for more ever since; if athletics could be run by a market instead of by the government, he believes China would replace the United States as the world's most dominant sporting superpower. To illustrate his point, he reaches over and flips open the top of the fancy silver sugar bowl on the table. "When China opens the lid," he says, "look out world."
The conversation circles familiar topics. How soon will the system change? Will it be immediate or over time? Rhoads ticks off the sectors that have been freed. Big Xu offers a history lesson. All over China, as the economy surged in the 1990s, private plants opened, leading the government to shut down the competing state-owned factories. The sports system wasn't spared. Annual belt-tightening meant the usual promises could no longer be kept. In 1998, the sports hierarchy was demoted, going from a committee to a bureau. Titles are important in China, and the loss of power and face stung. The premier at the time, Zong Rongji, had wanted to get rid of the sports system all together, but political connections spared the newly named bureau, at least for the time being. But the end was clearly near.
Only, in 2001, Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Olympics. No one wanted to risk international humiliation, so this bought the sports bureau seven more years. Bureau officials slipped a few sports into the market to keep high officials sated: basketball, soccer, volleyball, table tennis. The majority remained under iron-fisted control. For now.
"That is how we did it for 50 years," Big Xu says. "Now China wants to change."
"Now China doesn't need sports," Rhoads says.
Xu nods. "We can get machines to the moon," he says.
They talk about the most important number to Communist Party leaders. It isn't the medal total. It's 400 million: the number of children who don't get to participate in sports under the current system designed only to produce gold. Sport is no longer as important as health, education and commerce. Battling a recent rise of childhood obesity means more than winning gold. Exactly 20 years after Deng envisioned international sporting success as a means of leading China into the future, that future has made that success an anachronism.
A PROMISE BROKEN
Here are the three things you need to know about Zou Chunlan: She is a 37-year-old woman. She is a former national champion weightlifter abandoned by the system. She has a beard.
Now, come into her Laundromat, on an empty street in a special economic zone in the decaying northeastern city of Changchun, which is closer to North Korea than to Beijing. The sky outside is the color of an engine block. Teenagers meet up in the downtown square when the sun sinks below the horizon, looking for the warmth of a shot of liquor or meaningless love, disappearing into the night hand-in-hand. Boarded-up buildings stand guard, like on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Once, this was the auto capital of China. Motor City. State-run plants, which made Mao's Red Flag limos, poured smoke into the sky. Now most of the production lines don't move. The local university ran out of money. Unemployment soars. So do scams. Desperation is the currency of choice. It is here, in a town trying to pick up the pieces, that Zou is trying to pick up hers, too.
"I'm having an operation for the beard," she explains to the customers gathered around the smudged newsprint. "I took too many drugs."
She doesn't say much else. This isn't something she likes to talk about. Every morning, she shaves. By night, she has a thin 5 o'clock shadow. She's recently married, but refuses to take wedding photos until her problem is fixed. The beard is a reminder, like those rusting car plants: Once, she had a place where she belonged. A home, with people she trusted. They promised to look out for her if she brought glory to China. The beard is also a reminder of what she lost, of the promises made and broken.
Her journey began just as Ma's ended. It was 1984, and the Chinese athletes had just come home from Los Angeles to a hero's welcome. Little boys and girls were Ma Yanhong in their backyards. In a tiny village in between Russia and North Korea, Zou dreamed of track and field glory. A coach had different ideas; a new program was being started. It was called weightlifting.
Zou bulked up. Within a year, she was the national champion and a member of the provincial team. At 14, she left her tiny farming village behind. For good, she imagined. "At that time, it guaranteed that you have a job," she says. "Even after you retire, your job is guaranteed. Everybody was happy for me. My family was very poor, so even our neighbors were happy for me."
The provincial team was paradise. All the meat she wanted. No more classes; her schooling ended, as it does for most Chinese athletes, at 14. Soon, the life of a peasant faded away. Wake up. Eat. Train. Eat. Nap. Train. Eat. Sleep. Like her teammates, she did what the coaches told her. She took the medicine, not worrying when she began to grow facial hair. It couldn't be bad; China was watching out for her. If this system were set in America, no college athlete would ever have to leave campus, with guaranteed jobs waiting when their competitive careers were done. The biggest stars would become the coaches. The scrubs would become the custodians. The athletes from the middle would cook food, or handle logistics, or drive the bus.
Secure in their future, Zou and her friends just shaved in the morning and went about their training. In 1993, Zou hurt her back, ending her career. Still, the coaches watched out for her, just like they'd promised. They put her to work in the canteen, dishing up food for those healthy enough to train. Her work unit personnel file, the most important facet of a Chinese citizen's life, a permanent record that documents all anti-revolutionary thought and action, was still classified as that of an athlete. The coach promised to transfer her file to the canteen so she could live out her life in the sports compound. For seven years, she stayed. It was the only home she'd ever known. But China was changing.
In 2000, a new coach took over. From above, the order came down: Reduce expenses. Compete in the marketplace and in the arena. He reviewed the files, found an athlete working in the canteen. Hmmm. This was an easy cut. "You have to leave," he told Zou.
She packed, not really knowing where to go. That night, she stayed with her parents, a 29-year-old with a busted back, and a beard and a box full of faux gold medals. She was right back where she started, in the same house on the same street in the same village. Only China would never be the same. "I felt so lost," she says.
She had no education. She read at a third-grade level. First, she tried manual labor and selling kabobs on the street. She made no money. Finally, humiliated but desperate, she found work at a public bathhouse for $75 a month. Her job? To rub the dirt off people.
Sometimes, while shaving, she'd stare into the mirror and remember. She could taste the food. Hear the laughter of her teammates. Feel the comfort of knowing she was safe. She'd try to figure out why she'd been left out in the cold. Hadn't she done what they asked? Hadn't she brought glory to the People's Republic? She looked around and saw the rich getting richer, while the peasants slipped further down the economic ladder. That must be it. "I am from a poor family," she'd say later, "that's why those people broke their promise."
Then the miracle happened. A local reporter told her story. The national news agency picked it up, used her to bring attention to the trend of abandoned athletes. Nearly 80 percent end up jobless, injured or in poverty, according to a Chinese report referenced in Time magazine. Consider the American college athletes analogy, in which all were promised jobs. Now imagine that, suddenly, 80 percent were cut loose, sent into the world with no warning or training, a national champion track star suddenly homeless on your corner. That's what is happening, and people in China are angry about it.
Zou was lucky. The All-China Women's Federation, a group that fights for gender equality, wanted to help. They bought her all the equipment necessary to start a Laundromat, the washers, the moving racks, the steamers. Now Zou and her husband live in their business, along with three other employees. They are hopeful, as is much of their city. Light rail opened recently. So did a fancy new business hotel. Maybe the good old days can return. Maybe love can mean something again. Near the entrance to the special economic zone, devoted to spurring growth, a granite statue of a snarling bull paws at the ground.
III. THE FUTURE: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE SYSTEM IS GONE?
THE STARTING GUN ... AND BEFORE
Eleven seconds. That's it. Eleven seconds separating Yu Chaohong and a new life. He cannot stop replaying those 11 seconds. Four years ago, in Athens, he was coming down the stretch of the 50-kilometer race-walking final in third place. Fifty meters to go. His legs ached. Every breath burned. He entered the finishing chute. Almost home. The footsteps behind him kept getting louder. Faster! his mind screamed. His legs didn't listen. They felt like they were attached to sandbags. The footsteps turned into a man, who came even, then passed him. Yu watched the man walk away with his dream, crossing the finish line, almost close enough to touch. Eleven seconds later, he finished & fourth.
In China, an Olympic medal gets you admission to any university in the country, no entrance exams required: a free ride, no GPA or SAT scores needed. Your salary multiplies tenfold. A big bonus check gives you security. Endorsements come, and with them a ticket to the New China. Instead, Yu fell 11 seconds short and went back to the sad algebra of his life: a wife he can't live with, a 10 p.m. curfew he can't break, a ninth-grade education. He went back and began anew. What else could he do? He'd learned no other skills besides race walking. He figured when he retired, he'd coach or handle logistics. Take the job he'd been promised. Now he's 32, hanging on to the only dream he has ever known. The sports system that has been his life is about to change, and when it does, he could be left out in the cold, a widower of sorts. Until then, he's here, in a building at his training complex, the high-altitude race walking headquarters, located on the Tibetan plateau. There are 30 light fixtures in this room. Two are turned on. His training complex has a countdown clock, too, only here they cannot afford digital. Theirs must be turned by hand.
"Only 11 seconds," he says, sighing.
She walks down the corridor of her shiny new dorm. There is a bulletin board along the wall, with photos of race walkers and a list of times. Her name is at the top. She pauses, and sees a familiar face. "That's Yu," she says. She knows his story, about the 11 seconds. He is like most of her friends and teammates, focusing on today because they have no plans for tomorrow. Either he medals or is left adrift. She badly wants him to succeed. Looking at a photo of a doomed man in his prime is like seeing a snapshot of a plane moments before it crashes. It suggests grandeur, for all he has and can accomplish, and heartbreak, for all that he cannot.
It's like looking back in time.
INSIDE THE MACHINE: PUSHING FOR FEWER YUS, MORE JIANGS
The woman, lacking in neither fresh ideas nor ego, stands by the track at Beijing's Tsinghua University and watches her diving team run laps. Her name is Yu Fen. Once, she was the coach of the Chinese national diving team, mentor of Guo Jingjing and other champions. Now she is turning the Chinese sports system on its head. Out on the track is the only university team in the entire nation that trains Olympic-level athletes. She already has placed five divers on the national diving team. And instead of giving up their educations, her divers study at the elementary or high school on-site and, when they're old enough, at Tsinghua, the MIT of China, a place they never could have attended on their own. Here, among the idyllic tree-lined lanes and picturesque stream, athletic talent is a ticket to a future, not a potential destroyer of it. Someday, every Chinese athlete might be like race walker Jiang instead of her singularly focused teammates. Yu Fen practically swells when she describes herself. "I'm a pioneer," she gushes. "Before the sports schools were reformed, there had to be someone to try this."
This team began in her mind after the Seoul Olympics. One of her divers won a silver medal bit, because she'd given so much to the team, she had no other skills. Watching her diver flounder in the real world affected Yu. The system had let this athlete down. She had let this athlete down. But what could be done? It took eight years for Yu answer. After the Atlanta games, Yu left the national team -- some say she was fired -- and got a job here, at the university. This team would be patterned after the American college sports model. She began work on a Ph.D., and her dissertation sent shock waves through the sports system, costing her friends. Yu came up with several fundamental flaws of the current method. The system was designed to benefit the nation and exploit the athlete, she wrote. Without the ability to take care of someone for life, it was designed to produce gold medalists or homeless people, with little in between.
Her system offers a third choice. Parents who don't want their children to risk having no future can send them to Yu Fen. The students might not take advantage of the education, like so many American athletes, but at least they have the choice. The university works with her on admissions, though it's not hard to imagine an NCAA-like regulatory body in the future. She has fought off challenges from the sports bureau, even winning in court the legal right to train elite-level athletes on a parallel track. Someday, her model will offer every athlete, not just the rare one who studies on her own, a chance at a life beyond sport. "The joy is greater," Yu Fen says. "I feel like I'm educating a whole person."
THE FINISH LINE, AND AFTER
Three steps a second, honest as a metronome. Jiang takes her laps easily, her breathing controlled, her hips moving in that idiosyncratic race-walking swivel. She's wearing a pink track suit. Her neck muscles strain with each step, the only sign she's exerting energy at all. A thousand miles away, Yu Chaohong is doing the same thing, step after step, kilometer after kilometer. Their lives, for the moment, are similar, studies in simplicity. It is after this part of their life ends and the next begins that the gap between race walkers Yu and Jiang will widen, she being pulled into the future, he sinking further into the past.
He gets up at 7 a.m. For a decade, it was 5:30. Then, five years ago, after afternoon practice, the coach simply announced that, henceforth, the athletes could sleep an extra hour and a half. No warning. No real explanation. First thing after breakfast, he trains, and after lunch, works with the medical team on any nagging injuries. The rhythm never changes -- lights out at 10, payday on the 19th. On payday, the canteen where the athletes eat is empty. But on the 18th, he says with a laugh, it's packed. The only money he spends, other than meals out with friends, is on his cell phone. All the people he began with are now gone, into the real world. The stats say between 30 and 70 percent of the athletes end up jobless, depending on the province. Not much of a future, which is why he can't bring himself to leave. He walks down past the dorm, into the small canteen, with a long blue buffet table and eight round tables with lazy Susans. He cracks a joke with some ladies and takes two bowls and a pair of chopsticks, moving slowly and methodically past the incredible spread of food and drink: milk, orange juice, Sprite, Pepsi, apples, bananas, oranges, a big steamer of rice, two Szechuan hot pots with all the usual fixings, a beef dish, a fish dish, potatoes, dumplings, biscuits. This is the good life. Content, he sits down to eat.
She gets up at about 7, too. Well, as close to it as possible. One of the first tasks upon changing training centers is to figure out the last possible moment you can wake up and still get downstairs. The team has to be lined up, from shortest to tallest, outside at 7 sharp to march to breakfast. This is how they walk everywhere, to show discipline. She obeys, but she mocks, too. "We feel like we're in kindergarten," she says. The coach determines everything. The athletes even bring dates to meet him before going out, like they would a parent.
"Sometimes," she says, "the coach tries to match-make the best male and female athletes." For years, her coach even read her diary, which she keeps to vent anger, to talk about happy memories. Two years ago, after she'd begun to imagine a life for herself that didn't involve the micromanagement of the sports system, she stopped letting him.
Both Jiang and Yu have a date in April circled on their calendars: the Olympic race-walking trial. They need to finish in the top three to earn a spot on the team. If they make it, the dream continues. Until then, they live the life Chinese athletes have lived for 20 years, for a little while longer at least. If they ever forget, they have to look no further than the clocks, his manual, hers digital. His says 271 as he tries to outrun the pain of 11 seconds. Hers says 270 as she imagines a life after sports.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Chen Xiaoni, who translated the interviews conducted in Chinese and helped with logistics.
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