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|August 24, 2000||
China's rural folk eye sporting lifelineTan Ee Lyn in Beijing
As a child, Chen Yanqing helped her farmer parents carry baskets of fruit through the scenic mountains of China's eastern Jiangsu province.
Her life changed at 11 when a weightlifting coach, scouting for prospects to form a women's team, spotted the strapping young girl at a school shot put competition.
Today, Chen is a good bet for a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics and a classic example of China's approach to finding and fostering home-grown talent.
China's coaches believe an upbringing in the country's harsh rural environment -- where hard work is a part of childhood -- moulds tough kids suited to sports that rely on strength and stamina.
Spotted at village-level competitions, the new recruits then enter the state sports apparatus, which puts them through years of running, swimming and other stamina-building exercise before they graduate to sport-specific training.
National weightlifting coach Yang Hanxiong said sport throws a lifeline to millions of impoverished Chinese in the countryside.
"In the cities, most people are not drawn to weightlifting. But those from the villages can take the tough training and they hope that through sport, they can move to the cities and change their lives," Yang told Reuters.
Still, only a tiny fraction of the recruits succeed.
Chen is one.
China has yet to finalise the list of Olympians who will compete in Sydney. But Chen, who holds the 105 kg snatch and 235 kg combined world records from the World Championships in 1999, seems a lock for the team.
The stout 21-year-old, who used to climb trees to pick plums, peaches and mandarin oranges, burst onto the international weightlifting scene in 1997 when she won the 58 kg title at the World Championships in Thailand in 1997.
"My parents first read about it in the newspapers. They were so thrilled. They felt I had brought glory to our ancestors," said Chen, the youngest of three daughters.
"Everyone in the village was stunned and my mother was so proud. She went around saying that having one such daughter was better than having 10 sons," she said, referring to the preference for sons that is deeply ingrained in Chinese society.
But national pride isn't the only lure for aspiring athletes. The state sport apparatus provides a steady living and success can bring a windfall.
Beijing gives each gold medallist 80,000 yuan (US$9,661) in prize money -- a small fortune in China -- while a silver earns 50,000 yuan and a bronze 30,000.
Top male weightlifter Zhan Xugang bagged another 250,000 yuan from two Hong Kong philanthropists after winning gold in Atlanta. The government of Zhejiang, his home province, gave him a house.
"Sometimes I think I want to give up. This training is completely meaningless, why should I do this? But when I win, I feel great, I forget all the pain and injuries," said Zhan, 26, who will compete in Sydney.
Outside the training pool for national swimmers in Beijing, dozens of doting grandmothers nibble on snacks while fanning themselves furiously in searing heat waiting for their toddlers.
Bringing their grandchildren to the training pool and waiting an hour and a half while they lap up the basics of swimming from some of the country's finest coaches is a daily exercise.
"This is the best pool in the country, the water is very clean, our national swimmers train in it and the coaches are the best," said a woman surnamed Shen.
But she had a look of utter disbelief when asked if her six-year-old grandson would ever join the national team.
"You wished! I wouldn't even dare hope!" she said with a laugh. "But if he was ever talent scouted, we would be totally delighted. There couldn't be a greater honour."
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