Last night I turned on the television and on Beijing TV there was a talk show featuring the coaches and some of the children in a state run sports school specializing in gymnastics.
In the TV studio, the hostess, not a very motherly one -- chatted with the kids, dressed in nice gym clothes and the little girls in bright pink with their hair up with colourful hair accessories.
She would invite them over one at a time, ask them to perform a pose or demonstrate a skill, and then she would reward them with either a stuffed toy or candy.
And interspersed throughout the show were scenes shot inside the school.
The little boys were practically in their underwear, no shirt, and the girls in a one-piece outfit, hanging on beams and counting to see how long they could stay on it. They did flips in the air, some landing well, others not.
But there were also images of young girls, as young as four or five doing the splits on a hill of mats and their teacher pushing them down even further. One cried of pain, but the instructor ignored her pleas to stop.
There were also kids who were expected to climb up a pole and they wailed that they were tired or that they couldn't do it anymore.
It was riveting to see this local station was able to show these unedited scenes. I had to keep watching.
Meanwhile the coaches hardly had much reaction to the pain and tears, as they probably went through the same training when they were children.
They claimed they tried to make the training as fun as possible for the kids, letting them experiment with the equipment.
But even if they didn't like it, it was pretty much a job, as they trained all day long, everyday. Many of them didn't give the impression they were having fun, as many didn't smile.
Even though the children were so young, they were already expected to lift their own weight easily. Just seeing their small arms support themselves in various poses was amazing and mind-boggling to watch at the same time.
There was one scene of the female coach visiting a school on a recruitment drive. She asked kids to jump up and down for her and then she would feel their leg and hand muscles through their thick clothes. She was looking for candidates whose arms and legs were straight because a gymnast needed to look good this way.
She proudly said one of her greatest finds was Zhang Nan, who won bronze in Athens.
Meanwhile, another piece of footage showed a young boy was able to demonstrate his ability to swing his legs around a pummel horse. And how do they keep their legs straight when doing this?
Their feet are placed in a giant bowl that is hung from the ceiling and it rotates as he moves his legs (together).
This image was then put side by side with a Chinese Olympic champion on the pummel horse.
An Olympian in the making.
This is how China wins gold in gymnastics. Schools like this brings up many ethical and psychological issues which the hostess of course didn't ask.
But it makes one wonder with so many children going through these schools, only a few actually make it to the national level. What happens to the rest of them?