China dives into future for success


BARCELONA, Spain -- The future of the Summer Olympics is Sun Shuwei of China.

He is a diver, a 10-meter platform performer with the face of a child, the courage of a mountain climber, and the ability to hit the water like a dart striking a bull's eye.

Yesterday, with the city as a backdrop, and the platform as his stage, Sun won yet another diving gold for China, the rising Olympic power from the east.

Eight years after first being invited to the Summer Games, the Chinese have emerged as a formidable sporting power, perhaps angling to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern European athletic machines.

Sun's gold and a bronze for his teammate Xiong Ni raised China's medal total to 15 golds, 19 silvers and 14 bronzes.

For China's athletes, each gold is worth $4,000. And a soda company has promised to give the winners solid gold cans worth $6,000.

"Of course, we give money," said China's national diving coach, Xu Yiming. "But the amount cannot be compared to others around the world."

Yet there is the unmistakable sound of a new machine beginning to hum. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is seeking a foothold to international respectability through sports. The country was a host to the 1990 Asian Games and the 1992 Women's World Cup and plans to bid for the Summer Olympics of 2000.

Diving is China's first athletic success story. Three of the four diving golds in Barcelona went to Chinese performers, who were selected at young ages, sent off to training camps and molded into champions.

Under Xu's direction, the divers practice six to eight hours a day, seven days a week, often seeking shelter from the outside world at a training camp in Sanya City in Hainin Province. Not even thunderstorms keep the divers off the 10-meter platform.

"The Chinese divers are great kids, great people," said Scott Donie, the men's platform silver medalist from the United States. "But that's all they are -- kids. It's great to know a capitalist system like America can compete with them. It's great to know that I can compete with these kids who have been diving since they were 4-year-olds."

There is a flip side to the Chinese success story. Fu Mingxia, 13, is the most elegant and courageous women's platform diver in the world today. She is also the youngest gold medalist in the Barcelona Games. But she has seen her parents only twice in the past six months.

Gao Min, winner of a second consecutive women's 3-meter platform gold, is now 21, and on Monday announced her retirement. Undefeated for six years, she leaves the sport with two shoulder injuries and a hip injury.

"She was diving in a lot of pain, and they had to do some fancy fixing to get her up there," said U.S. coach Mike Brown. "There is a lot of wear and tear. Training six to eight hours a day may be fine for pre-adolescents. But it's too much wear and tear for the older kids. You need to be smart and know your limitations."

In China, the horizons in all sports are being expanded. The country's golds have come in race walking, gymnastics, fencing, table tennis, and swimming.

But with each success come new questions.

After each triumph, Chinese swimmers and coaches were asked about the possibilities that drugs were used to aid performances. China swim coach Xiong Zhang said his country has achieved swimming success the old-fashioned way, by relentless attention to detail, hard training and pulling together the best of swimming theory from the United States, the former Soviet Union and the old East German machine.

There is also a building boom in athletic facilities, as China's nearly 4,000 training centers cater to more than 340,000 athletes. And, in a bid to claim the Olympics of 2000, China has promised to add a 100,000-seat stadium in Beijing, to complement new facilities that include four stadiums, four arenas, eight gyms, a velodrome and a swimming hall.

Sun, the gold medalist who achieved near-perfection on his final dive in Barcelona, has few illusions about his ability to keep performing for four years, let alone eight.

Asked if he will win the gold in Atlanta in 1996, he said: "I don't know. There are others who are as good. I'll try my best to be back."

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