London 2012 ‘Sport is war without gunfire’: Inside the brutal training factories churning out Chinese champions
Swim sensation Ye Shiwen and her Chinese teammates have been forged by training techniques many say border on torture
She’s a normal 16-year-old who loves reading detective stories, painting her mum’s nails and chatting to pals on her pink mobile phone.
Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen may have won Olympic gold in the women’s 400m individual medley by smashing more than a second off the world record and swimming the last 50m faster than the men’s winner – but really, she’s just a natural.
That is the story being peddled by China’s state-run newspapers in tributes to the new national heroine.
Yet the rest of the world watches in envy as China heads for a record haul of medals… and wonders.
And the question many are asking is: How can they be that good?
The answer may well lie in the brutal training regimes youngsters are forced into following back home.
The truly astonishing teenage superwoman Ye Shiwen, whose truly unbelievable performance sent the word “doping” echoing around the Aquatics Centre before she had even taken off her goggles at the end of the race, is certainly NOT a natural-born winner.
The disturbing truth is that, while her performance may not be drug-enhanced, Ye Shiwen and her Chinese teammates have been manufactured like automatons on a cynical human production line, forged by training techniques many say border on torture.
Swimmers, gymnasts, boxers and athletes are all products of the £500million Mandarin Machine – the government programme designed to spew out Olympic gold medallists and ensure China’s world domination of sport.
For the past four decades children as young as six have been tested for size, fitness and skill as part of a national “talent identification strategy”.
With a population of 1.3 billion to choose from, more than 400,000 are selected and sent to 3,000 sports schools – or boot camps.
Here they are subjected to gruelling daily training and strict diets while some are even doped with hormone injections.
And, separated from their families for weeks or months on end, they are brainwashed into believing they have one purpose only – winning gold.
Each school specialises in certain sports – like gymnastics and diving, or volleyball, badminton and table tennis.
Steve Roush, former chief of sport performance for the US Olympic Committee, has visited China more than 20 times on fact-finding missions.
He said: “It is a pipeline like no other in the world. The athlete pool is so vast, so alive with skilled young talent, that there are always others pushing through.
“You just have to get better or get out of the way.”
The Chinese insist youngsters’ days are split between academic work and training, but some former pupils claim they simply trained, slept and ate.
Female diver Guo Jingjing retired last year at 29 after winning four Olympic golds and 17 world titles.
She said she craved “a quiet and normal life”, adding tellingly: “I don’t want to be a coach. I am quiet and soft-hearted and not suited to it.
“You have to be strict with young athletes during training and competitions and I couldn’t do that.”
Guo didn’t talk about her own eyesight problems – rumoured to be so severe that she could hardly see the diving board as she competed.
The damage is said to be caused by her intense training. She began diving competitively at age six, before her retinas were fully developed.
Sport school training sessions are usually shrouded in secrecy but occasional glimpses have revealed bullying and even physical abuse.
Last year photos posted on the internet showed tiny gymnasts weeping silently as they endured torturous stretching exercises, children being made to do handstands for 30 minutes at a time to improve balance and endurance and seven-year-old swimmers forced to do 20 chin-ups, a task beyond most fit adults.
All schools are decorated with large Chinese flags – a reminder that pupils are national property – and signs bearing the single the word GOLD reinforce their patriotic duty.
Coaches even have a phrase which translates as “well-meant whipping”.
Most foreign observers granted access to the schools insist they have not witnessed any actual abuse or intimidation.
But Olympic rowing hero Matthew Pinsent, who made two visits to the country ahead of the Beijing Games, was emotionally unprepared for the brutality of the coaching regime he uncovered during a visit to a school.
Pinsent, who understands better than most the hardship, pain and sacrifices that have to be endured by an Olympic champ, said: “I didn’t like the way the coaches were dealing with the pupils.”
He felt uneasy at the lack of smiles and enjoyment during training and managed to speak to some of the children, aged between five and 11, out of earshot of the coaches.
He said: “The pupils admitted they were being hit by their coaches.
“After hearing this, I spoke with the deputy head of the school and I was told that these things do happen.
“It seems the Chinese see this as part and parcel of creating success. “
Former swimmer Fan Hong described his country’s philosophy more succinctly. He said: “Competitive sport is war without gunfire.”
Stories of abuse are commonplace.
Diver Chen Ruolin competed in Beijing when she was 15 years old and just 4st 10lbs – the weight of an average nine-year-old.
Her coach had ordered her to skip dinner for a year before the Games to stay thin and make a smaller splash hitting the water.
And gold medal-winning weightlifter Cao Lei was so cut off from the outside world that no one told her that her mother was dying.
She only found out two months after the funeral, and never had a chance to say goodbye.
In 2007 marathon runner Ai Dongmei and two of her team-mates won damages from their former coach who had regularly beaten them and kept all their earnings.
And in another horrendous case two years ago a football player was kicked in the chest for daring to ask his coach what time he had to start training next day.
He fell, hit his head and died.
The coach got three years in jail for manslaughter and embarrassed officials insisted the use of violence was not condoned.
It was in the 1980s, after decades of humiliating deafeat by the Americans, that China adopted the controversial Cold War training regimes used by the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc states.
Inevitably they were soon dogged by the doping rows with scandals throughout the 1990s and 2000s including the discovery in 1998 of 13 vials of a human growth hormone – enough to supply the entire team – in the kitbag of a female swimmer who was searched at Sydney airport.
In 2006 the Liaoning Anshan Athletics School was found to be doping unsuspecting pupils as young as 15 with testosterone.
But now the super-human performances of Team China 2012 have raised speculation about a new form of performance enhancement with sinister echoes of Nazi Germany’s eugenics policies – gene doping
Scientists say it is theoretically possible to interfere with human DNA to boost power and endurance.
Bioethicist Andy Miah said: “If a genetically modified athlete wins the 100m sprint at the London 2012 Games, we won’t know – at least not immediately.
“In some years, a test may show that gene doping took place and we will have to confront the possibility of retracting some of these medals.”
Gene doping could see athletes injecting lab-fabricated DNA into their bodies through a carrier, like a virus, to stimulate the production of muscle-growing hormones or red blood cells that shuttle oxygen to the muscles.
Don Catlin, a doctor who helped set up the first drug testing lab in the United States, said: “You could take a fully fledged, developed athlete and fiddle around with their genes to make them stronger and better.
“I don’t know that it is happening, but then again, nobody will call me up and tell me.
“We are concerned about it because it is a theoretical possibility. We know people will try it and probably are trying it.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency added gene doping to its list of prohibited substances and training methods in 2003, and has spent millions of dollars on developing a test.
More than 6,000 blood and urine samples are to be taken at the London Olympics and can now be kept for up to eight years for retrospective testing.
One of those samples belongs to the impossibly talented Ye Shiwen.
Read more about Ye Shiwen at London 2012