Gymnast-turned-coach Gao Jian, director of the State Sports General Administration of China (SSGAC) Gymnastics Management Center, recently talked with China.org.cn about the 2004 Summer Olympics goals and prospects of the national gymnastics team, and how the sport has changed over the years.
China.org.cn: What are the goals of the gymnastics team at the Athens Games, and who are China's big rivals?
Gao Jian: We expect the national team to win two or three gold medals among the 14 events. China is most competitive in seven events: men's team combined and individual all-around exercises, parallel bars, vault, pommel horse and women's uneven bars and balance beam. The Chinese team acquitted itself pretty well at last year's world championships, winning the most medals with a total of eight -- five gold, two silver and one bronze. The situation won't change a lot at the Athens Games. For the men's team, the United States and Japan still are the most threatening, while the women face their greatest challenges from Romania, Russia and the United States.
C: China drew an excellent lot for the performing order at the Olympics. The men's team is in the last group match in the evening and the women will compete in the third match. Do you think China is very lucky?
GJ: Of course, a lucky lot is a positive factor, but it won't affect a team very much nowadays. Before, the advantage of drawing a lucky lot was based on the referees, because an early performance was likely to be judged more strictly. As the contest goes on, the judges get tired and become less sensitive to the performances. Also, the referees were inclined to give higher scores to those who performed last or in the evening. That phenomenon has gradually been curbed. The athletes feel excited when they draw a favorable lot, but it's not the most important thing so we have to keep cool heads.
C: As the Games draw near, is the training adjusted? For example, do you have any psychological training for the young female gymnasts who are under more pressure than the men?
GJ: Psychological pressure is one problem that has to be dealt with in many other events, like figure skating, diving and shooting. We have some experience in this field. A good coach is also a wonderful psychologist. Training such as psychological guidance and suggestions are part of the daily routine.
C: The more difficult the routine is, the more dangerous. How does the team prevent the athletes from being injured in training?
GJ: First of all, do not conduct training blindly. Careful coaches can reduce injuries and illness. China's gymnastics team gives top priority to the safety and health of the athletes. It is better to forfeit the gold medal than to let the athletes take risks. We've gained experience and developed many methods to prevent injuries.
C: How does the national team select gymnasts? What physical, mental and personality factors does it seek?
GJ: Gymnastics circles consider these issues very important and we've conducted extensive research for a long time. In terms of intellectual selection, for instance, for the 12-year-old athletes, we will test their IQ and also examine their psychological makeup and personality, which are prerequisites for a world champion. Physical, mental, emotional and intellectual conditions are all taken into consideration.
C: After having experienced several Olympics, what do you think of today's gymnastics competitions?
GJ: Today's gymnastics competition is very different from the 1984 Olympics. It is very difficult, with fierce competition and much that is unpredictable. It has become an all-round, comprehensive contest. We are under tremendous pressure to achieve our goal. But we are lucky in that China's gymnastics team has accumulated a wealth of experience and is familiar with the internal and external environment of the Olympic Games.
C: As a witness of the Olympic gymnastics history of the People's Republic of China, how do you feel about the development of the country's gymnastics during the past two decades?
GJ: Chinese gymnastics have surged forward in the 20 years since we first attended the Olympics in 1984. Although China set up its gymnastics team in 1953, its first world champion didn't appear until 1979, with Ma Yanhong winning the title on the uneven bars. China's first male world champion was Huang Yubin, grabbing the title on the rings at the Fifth World Championship held in Canada in 1980. Since the '80s, China's gymnasts have developed rapidly and now we've won a total of 76 world championships.
C: Many gymnasts put their talents to use in other fields when they retire. For example, the former star Li Ning opened his own company, the Li-Ning Sporting Goods. Are successes like this related to their training at the gymnastics center?
GJ: These athletes are our pride. People used to think that athletes were strong in body but weak in mind. In the past 50 years, the situation has changed a lot. Every athlete has to memorize many movements, and learn how to eliminate interference and cope with difficulties. Outsiders can't begin to imagine. According to the Henan Scientific Research Institute, the IQs of the world champion gymnasts are much higher than average. It's really no wonder that they are capable of great success in a different field after retiring.
(China.org.cn by staff reporter Zhan Haitao, translated by Li Xiao, May 31, 2004)