A year ago, a slender girl called Cloud had no idea she would dedicate her life to lifting disks of iron above her head. Then a stranger came to her remote village in eastern China’s Shandong province, took detailed measurements of her shoulder width, thigh length and waist circumference–and announced she would have the honor of serving her motherland as a weight lifter. The then 14-year-old daughter of vegetable farmers had little choice in the matter. She had been chosen to be a cog in China’s vast sports machine, a multibillion-dollar apparatus designed with one primary goal in mind: churning out Olympic gold medalists.
Today Chen Yun (yun means cloud) trains at the Weifang City Sports School, one of 3,000 state-run athletics academies that consign nearly 400,000 youngsters to a form of athletic servitude. Sitting under the watchful eyes of her coach and a man who identifies himself as the school’s “propaganda director,” Cloud tells me that weight-lifting is her favorite sport. Any hobbies? I ask. “Weight-lifting,” she answers. Anything Cloud likes besides weight-lifting? “Weight-lifting,” she repeats. I try again. Cloud glances at the two men near her. Behind them is a poster of Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic and architect of China’s state sports system. “Once, I liked to run in the fields near my village,” she begins softly. The propaganda official steps in. “But now, she prefers weight-lifting,” he says. “Her goal is to become a star athlete and make China proud.” Cloud looks down at her callused hands, which can thrust 35 kg into the air but are now shaking from nerves. “I prefer weight-lifting now,” she says. “I want to become a star athlete and make China proud.”