The score is in and America displays its exceptionalism once again -- this time in athletics by way of the Olympics. Here we are, one-fourth the size of China, and we still racked up 104 medals against their 88.
China, following the Soviet factory training model, scours the country, every nook and cranny, to find the most promising 6-year-olds to train in government-run Olympic training centers -- more than 3,000 of them, not counting 20 other major and 200 smaller programs. Some 400,000 students were in residence in 2005.
Scouts identify children who look like they fit the physique profile needed for a specific sport. Nine hundred kids will be involuntarily taken into membership in a centralized, away-from-home training complex for every one child who grows to Olympic stature. The rest will be unfriended by the program and returned to disappointed families.
While some elite training facilities support their trainees' academic development, many concentrate solely on their specialty to the neglect of academics, resulting in unfriended trainees returning to their communities lacking the academic skills needed to fit back in with their peers with little thought given to helping them catch up. Most return to their homes unable to read at grade level. The families of the friended children are often given homes for the contribution of their child to the state, which will support them until they are no longer useful. End of support.
There is little family contact once the child leaves home. Children aged 8 to 13 throughout China are assessed for their potential as prospects for sports schools and intensive training. Children demonstrating exceptional flexibility and balance are sent to gymnastic and diving camps. Tall children are sent to volleyball and basketball camps. Those with quick reflexes are guided into pingpong. Kids with long arms are pushed into swimming or javelin throwing. Those with short arms make ideal weightlifters. Strong shoulders, superior vision and a cool demeanor are viewed as desirable attributes for archery. Yao Ming himself was selected for basketball at age 12 when he was 6 feet 5 inches tall and a knuckle measurement predicted he'd grow to 7 feet 5 inches. Yao confessed he didn't even like the sport until he was 18 or 19. But to a basketball camp he went, monitored every day by his coach to make sure he made practice. He was watched 24 hours a day and fed in a special kitchen.
Now to the American scene of four privately funded training centers: Colorado Springs, San Diego, Lake Placid, Northern Michigan University where, according to Pearson Education, "43 countries have sent over 25,000 athletes, coaches, and officials to participate in training opportunities in 30 different sports." It appears we are a training magnet beyond science, math, engineering and technology.
Athletes are self-supporting or sponsored by friends, family, scholarships, local businesses and sports companies. Athletes self-select for training on the basis of their interests, talent, ambition, competitive spirit and experience. Selection and winnowing-out occur at countless meets and competitions along the way where athletes are scouted and encouraged to continue on the basis of their motivation and performance.
Training begins by children showing interest, desire and promise, followed by encouragement from coaches and parents with the means to support them. Trainers are chosen on the basis of their reputations for burnishing raw talent into Olympian form. Academics are part of the training. Kids excitedly go to training camps on the basis of their interests and skills. No doubt some are forced by empty parents living through their kids, or empty trainers profiting on their students (a number of names come to mind), but that's the exception.
Yes, the training is intense -- it has to be. After all, we're talking Olympics. But that intensity is not to the detriment of schooling and education. Kids often leave home for advanced levels of training, but do so with their enthusiastic consent. As the winnowing toward championships grinds on, kids know when their time has passed and retire to previous lives in stride with their peers. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Our athletes report pain to be sure, but also joy with their accomplishments along the way. As they say, "The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat." All the while our athletes live active, fulfilling lives outside their sport. Things are not quite the same here as they are halfway around the world. And we keep stealing the show.
Brik McDill, Ph.D., of Tehachapi has spent 40 years in private practice in clinical and forensic psychology.