Inside the System That Turned China Into the Most Dominant Divers in the World

China should rule the diving podium in. These state-run academies are why

Tang Zixuan is five years old, pixie-faced with callused palms. She knows why she will succeed at the sport of diving, just like her hometown heroine Liu Huixia, who will be competing in Rio. “I enjoy eating bitterness,” Tang chirps in her little-girl voice, using a Chinese expression for the ability to endure suffering. Next to her, another diving prodigy at the Huangshi state sports school in central China’s Hubei province interrupts. “I like eating bitterness, too,” she says. “I can do everything by myself.” Yet another pair of five-year-old girls show off their blisters and calluses. Tiny biceps bulge.

The future of China’s Olympic juggernaut diving squad depends on the dedication of undersized athletes like Tang. Cultivated by the state from the moment they are barely out of diapers, these children are funneled into government academies charged with one task: fashioning them into aquatic contortionists who will bring glory to the People’s Republic. From winning just five gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Games, China claimed 51 in Beijing two decades later, the biggest haul of any nation at those Games. Four years ago in London, the Chinese diving team captured six of eight diving gold medals on offer.

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In Rio, China’s 13-person squad could well sweep every diving gold. (Hubei province’s Liu did her part Tuesday, winning gold in the synchronized 10 m platform diving event with partner Chen Ruolin.) Such domination of a single sport is surpassed only by China’s own monopoly over table tennis and badminton, in which Chinese athletes captured every single 2012 Olympic gold. This supremacy is a source of pride for a nation still sensitive about how foreign powers once carved-it up. “An athlete without a sense of patriotism can’t go too far,” says Zhu Qingmin, the director of Hubei province’s swimming and diving administration.

The sustained success of the diving team comes as China has softened aspects of its state-run, Soviet-style sports system. The State General Administration of Sport once recruited tens of thousands of children for the sporting cause, no matter what sacrifices were required. At a time of famine and poverty, rural parents saw government-run sports academies, with their well-stocked canteens, as a refuge. But China’s basic needs were met more than a generation ago. And because of the one-child family-planning policy, the nation teems with coddled only children. “In the past, families had more than one child so if the state could raise one kid, parents would be very happy,” says Yao Junying, a gymnastics coach at Huangshi sports school. “But now, most families have just one child so they are reluctant to give their kid over to us completely.” After all, what parent wants their child to grow up like Zou Chunlan, a champion Chinese weightlifter who famously ended up working as a public bathroom attendant because she could barely read? “In the past, if you were a good athlete, you didn’t have to take academic exams,” says Yu Lianming, the coach who scouted Olympic diver Liu. “The old athletes ignored their studies.”

At Huangshi, one of thousands of cogs in the nation’s athletic assembly line where coach Yu now works, most children no longer board at the school. No longer do child athletes have to spend every waking moment pursuing physical perfection. Instead, students live at home and attend academic classes. After normal school is done, the kids come to Huangshi to sweat it out in the 104˚ F (40˚ C) degree heat of the academy’s non-air conditioned gym. Grandparents hover, water bottles, cold towels and smartphone games at the ready. Yu’s husband weaves among the diving students with a long red stick poised behind his back but the kids don’t seem concerned about the threat of corporal punishment. One four-year-old boy in underpants and singlet spends an hour wailing and calling for his mother. She shakes her head from the sidelines. “I don’t expect him to be a national champion,” Tong Yanli says of her bawling son, whose breath emerges in ragged hiccups as he does his stomach crunches. “I just want him to have good health and become a tough boy instead of a spoiled one.”

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But if most of the families have little expectation of Olympic splendor, the school administrators feel ever more pressure in an era of budget cutbacks. In recent years, state sports czars have begun paying attention to the nation’s overall fitness—childhood obesity is on the rise—as opposed to lavishing most funding on the creation of world champions. In the race to claim a smaller pool of government money, Huangshi officials hope the school will profit from its connection to Liu, who is Hubei’s sole representative on the Chinese Olympic diving squad. The accounting is clear: if Liu wins gold in Rio, everyone who had a hand in her success will receive cash from state sport coffers. Huangshi needs the money. The school, which proudly counts Liu as an alumnus, doesn’t even have a pool or diving board for its diving program. Instead, the kids must plunge into foam mattresses and spend weekends commuting to a faraway pool.

Liu, it turns out, never actually attended Huangshi. Instead, the school’s link to the world-champion diver is through Yu, Liu’s old coach. “If Liu Huixia wins this time, I can ask the officials to install a diving board for me,” Yu says. She and her adult daughter, a coach and former elite diver who never quite made it to the Olympic level, have even greater ambitions. “We could open a private diving club,” says Yu, “and use Liu Huixia’s name to promote it.” In the U.S., the land of the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy and Karolyi gymnastics camp, such a business plan sounds natural. But in state-run China, it’s only recently that sports legends have begun to open up their own academies for sports like gymnastics, fencing and snooker.

One step up the state athletic ladder from Huangshi is the $160 million Hubei Olympic Sports Center in provincial capital Wuhan, where there’s little sign of any budgetary pressure. The complex comes complete with its own food-sourcing system, lest athletes ingest steroid-tainted meat that could lead to failed drug tests. Kids are allowed time on their smartphones; there’s WiFi. Still, even at this breeding ground of champion divers, officials fret about the eight-year gap between Liu’s 2013 world championship performance and the last Hubei diver to also rank No. 1. Provincial swimming and diving director Zhu is skeptical that the new government initiative to bring sports to the masses will ensure China future Olympic glory. “In Japan and Britain, people’s health is good but their competitive sports are only so-so,” he says. “It’s hard to say whether we can keep our top status in competitive sports.”

Of course, the U.S., which won the most gold medals of any country at London 2012, is built on just such a grassroots system. Programs like Little League baseball, youth soccer and tiny tots gymnastics are largely for fun and relatively low-stakes competition, not for the creation of a few hundred champions who labor for the state. But it’s hard for Chinese sports officials to pivot completely to a new system. At the Hubei pool, a 10 m long banner hangs on the wall, reminding everyone of the provincial team’s eight-year dry spell. Endure hardship, revive the Hubei diving team, it reads. At the entrance of the sports complex looms a giant poster of Chairman Mao Zedong, who birthed the state sports system to prove the strength of his new People’s Republic.

Back in the 1980s, Zhu toiled as a coach for the socialist state. His salary? The equivalent of $6 a month in today’s money. Current diving royalty enjoy far richer lives. The state may claim a chunk of athletes’ endorsement contracts in return for years of government-funded training. But diving gold medalists have celebrity status. One such retired diver regularly stars on lucrative reality TV shows. Another married the former Hong Kong Financial Secretary, more than a quarter century her senior. Still another wed the grandson of a Hong Kong tycoon.

Still, the life of a Chinese athlete remains steeped in sacrifice. Wan Shenghong, the head coach of the Hubei diving team and herself a veteran of the national team, suffers from chronically bloodshot eyes, a hazard of years of plunging into pools. Damaged eyesight is common among Chinese divers. In late July, as Liu prepared for the Rio Games at an Olympic training base in southern China, she fell ill with sunstroke and suffered a shoulder injury. Everyone, though, expected her to persevere. A few years ago, when Liu was preparing for a competition, her grandmother died. Her family kept the news from the young diver lest it disturb her training. At the London Olympics, it was only after another diver, Wu Minxia, won yet another gold that her father admitted to her that her grandparents had died and that her mother had struggled for years with cancer. On Sunday in Rio, Wu, 30, and her partner Shi Tingmao won gold in the 3m synchronized springboard event. Wu now ranks as the most decorated female diver in Olympic history.

Feng Ailing is the grandmother of five-year-old Tang, who is the brightest prospect at the Huangshi sports school. Tang, with her bowl cut and dancing eyes, is off to Wuhan soon to train at the provincial diving center. If she succeeds, she may become a stranger to her family. One Hubei diver now on the national diving team admits that she no longer gets to see her parents even once a year. But Tang’s grandmother thinks such distance is worth it. “If you truly support your child,” she says, cradling her granddaughter, “not telling her [about the death of a family member] so she can focus on training is the right thing to do. I’m prepared.” As an adult, she may be. But is this little girl, even if she can eat so much bitterness?

—With reporting by Yang Siqi/Wuhan