TOKYO – Six days a week since the age of 12, with only a few days away each year, Hou Zhihui has been motivated by a mission: to lift more than double her body weight into the air.
On Saturday at the Tokyo Olympics, Hou’s dedication – kidnapped from his family, consumed by almost constant pain – paid off. She won gold in the 49-kilogram division and broke three Olympic records, being part of a formidable Chinese weightlifting team that aimed to sweep every weight class it contested.
“The Chinese weightlifting team is very cohesive and the support from the whole team is very good,” said Hou, 24, after winning gold. “The only thing we athletes think about is focusing on training.”
The Chinese sports assembly line is designed for one purpose: to produce gold medals for the glory of the nation. Silver and bronze barely count. By fielding 413 athletes in Tokyo, the most since the Beijing Games in 2008, China aims to climb to the top of the gold medal count, even as the Chinese public is increasingly wary of the sacrifices made by individual athletes.
“We must resolutely make sure that we are the first to win gold medals,” said Gou Zhongwen, chairman of the Chinese Olympic Committee, on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics.
Rooted in the Soviet model, the Chinese system relies on the state to recruit tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2,000 government-run sports schools. To maximize its gold harvest, Beijing has focused on smaller sports that are underfunded in the West or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.
It is no coincidence that nearly 75% of Olympic gold medals won by China since 1984 are in just six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics and weightlifting. More than two-thirds of China’s gold medals have been won by female champions, and nearly 70% of its Tokyo delegation are women.
Women’s weightlifting, which became a medal sport at the Sydney Games in 2000, was an ideal target for Beijing’s gold medal strategy. The sport is a niche for most athletic powers, which means that Western weightlifters have to scramble for funding. And with multiple weight classes, weightlifting offers up to four potential gold medals.
For Beijing’s sports czars, it didn’t matter that weightlifting had no appeal to the masses in China or that pre-teens channeled into the system had no idea such a sport even existed. At the National Weightlifting Team’s training center in Beijing, a giant Chinese flag covers an entire wall, reminding weightlifters that their duty is to the nation, not to themselves.
“The system is very efficient,” said Li Hao, head of the weightlifting team at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and current director of the anti-doping department of the Administration’s Weightlifting, Wrestling and Judo Center. General of Sport of China. “This is probably why our weightlifting is more advanced than other countries and regions.”
Most countries aspire to Olympic glory. The United States and the Soviet Union used the Games as a proxy battleground for the Cold War. But Beijing’s obsession with gold is tied to the very 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China, which was seen as a revolutionary force that would reverse centuries of decay and defeat by foreign powers.
The first essay Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Revolution, wrote was about the need for a country considered to be “the sick man of Asia” to build muscle.
For decades, however, politics hampered Olympic success. Because rival Taiwan competed in the Games as the Republic of China, Beijing boycotted the Summer Games until 1984, when Taiwan was renamed Chinese Taipei for Olympic competition.
In 1988, China won five Olympic gold medals. Two decades later, when Beijing hosted the Games, it overtook the United States to surpass the Golden Ratio.
London 2012, however, was a disappointment and Rio 2016 a greater disappointment, with China coming in third behind the United States and Great Britain.
Back home, sports officials redoubled their efforts, even as a growing number of middle-class parents were unwilling to hand their children over to the state to prepare as athletes. China was no longer a desperately poor country where the promise of filled rice bowls made government sports schools alluring. Beijing recognized that sport shouldn’t be just for elite athletes, that every child deserves to run, play and kick a ball.
And it was increasingly recognized that for every Olympic champion, tens of thousands of other children would not make it. For these disadvantaged athletes, life is often difficult: little education, damaged bodies, few career prospects outside the sports system.
Yet Beijing continued with plans, programs for making taekwondo, canoeing, sailing and more. Children who could stack bullets in the palms of their hands were sent to archery. Campaign girls with impressive stature were directed to weightlifting.
“Children from rural areas or from families who are not very good economically, they adapt well to difficulties,” Li, the Beijing sports official, said of the ideal candidate for weightlifting.
Beijing has focused on sports that can be perfected with rote routines, rather than those that involve unpredictable interaction of multiple athletes. Other than women’s volleyball, China has never won Olympic gold in a major team sport.
In Tokyo, Beijing’s strategy had delivered, until Thursday noon, 14 gold medals, ahead of the United States and Japan in the lead. China won the Games’ first gold medal in the women’s 10-meter air rifle and claimed their first victory in fencing. (Sports in which China is dominant are clustered in the first week of the Games, while U.S. forces are dispersed.)
But in some of China’s traditional strongholds, such as table tennis, diving and weightlifting, hopes for golden victories have not materialized. There were other disappointments before the start of the Games. A top swimmer has been banned for doping. The men’s soccer, volleyball and basketball teams failed to qualify.
The sacrifices made by the Chinese Olympians are intense. Academic education in sports schools remains paltry and some world champions share dormitories with others. They have the chance to see their family a few times a year.
After Chinese athlete Liao Qiuyun competed in the 55 kilogram category on Monday, a journalist from his native province sent him a message from his parents.
For weightlifters, the costs of the Chinese sports system are much higher. While divers and gymnasts must share the proceeds of sponsorship agreements with the state, they can at least build on their success after retirement. But advertisers don’t tend to be drawn to weightlifters.
In one case, a former national champion was so impoverished after her retirement that she ended up working hard in a public bathhouse. She grew a beard, which she said was the result of a doping regime imposed on her as a young athlete.
In 2017, after old samples were re-examined, three of China’s four weightlifting gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were revoked because testing revealed banned substances.
Doping is rampant in weightlifting, and China is hardly the only country to have been arrested. But an individual who makes the decision to take drugs is not the same as a child who is ordered by the state.
For the Chinese sports machine, all these years of painful efforts can still be foiled in the heat of Olympic competition. On Monday in Tokyo, Liao, the 55kg division athlete, started the event as the reigning world champion. Two days earlier, in a lighter weight class, Hou had won gold.
Liao took the stage on Monday with an expression that hovered between determination and resignation. In the final moments of the competition, a Filipino rival overtook her to win gold.
Subsequently, 26-year-old Liao cried, his breathing choppy. His trainer wrapped his arm around Liao and sobbed too. Finally, Liao, red-eyed, answered questions from Chinese reporters. A silver medal was a big achievement, a reporter said. Liao looked at the ground.
“Today I did my best,” she said. Tears flowed again.
The trauma of all those years fighting the ruthless force of mass and gravity weighed on Liao’s body.
“They’ve been there for years,” she said of her injuries. “Again and again.”
But unlike Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka, top Olympians who spoke about the emotional strain of so much pressure, Liao didn’t bring up the mental toll of what she’s been doing, day after day, since she was a little girl.
Liao sighed. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. The National Games were approaching, she said, and she would represent her home province of Hunan. The funding of sport for Chinese provinces depends in part on how each behaves at the National Games.
The Olympics were over for her. She had a new job to do.
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.