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Gymnastics Aim higher for 2008

A visit in a Chinese Camp for talents of rhythmic gymnastics

At Beijing Physical Culture and Sports University stadium, the hall echoed with light music and shouting from an elderly European woman. A dozen slender Chinese children in gym suits were practicing basic gymnastic movements by a long beam. Among them, a little blonde acted out the European coach's instructions for her Chinese peers.
On the side of the floor sat many Chinese coaches taking notes and recording the training session with video cameras.
This is the annual one-month training camp for Chinese young gymnasts and coaches. It aims to find promising talents for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and provide an opportunity for Chinese coaches to learn advanced training methods from European experts, said Xie Ying, an official from the Chinese Rhythmic Gymnastics Association.
The camp, which started February 27, attracted 150 gymnasts born between 1990 and 1992 and their coaches. After three rounds of tests and selections, only 27 remain for the last exam. Half of them will make the national reserve force for the 2008 Olympics.
"We look forward to a breakthrough at the 2008 Olympics,'' Xie said. Although one of the world powerhouses in athletic gymnastics, China lags far behind the world in rhymic gymnastics. In individual competitions, Chinese gymnasts have never reached the last 15, and no Chinese qualified for the Sydney Olympics.
Group performance is much better than individuals, with China finishing as runner-up in the group multiple competition at the 1987 World Championships and in fifth place at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The gap between the little Ukrainian blonde and her Chinese friends is stunning. Compared with the exact and graceful movements of the 13-year-old Ukrainian girl, the group following her lacked suppleness and strength. Even their facial expressions were not as natural and charming as the foreign girl's.

"Chinese girls have very good physical conditions, but they need thorough training in basic skills,'' said Ludmila Kovalik, the Ukrainian coach invited by China to help improve the Chinese girls' talent in the sport. "Their training format and methods also need improving.'' With a comparatively late start in the 1970s, 20 years later than athletic gymnastics, the sport is plagued by a limited reserve force, backward training methods, meager funding and few spectators.

This graceful sport is nicknamed "lonely beauty'' in China. In recent years, China began inviting coaches from world top countries in this field, such Russia, the Ukraine and the Republic of Bulgaria, to share their advanced training methods.
Through communications with foreign coaches, we have found many problems in our training programme and even our understanding of the sport,'' said Xiong Lin, a gymnastics coach from Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.
Xiong sat near the floor with 49 other Chinese coaches, recording the training course with a video camera while taking careful notes.
She said she learned that "the training programme should be one overall plan,'' but that Chinese coaches used to divide it into several parts and let the gymnasts learn them one by one.
She said Chinese gymnasts do not receive enough strength training and learn to use the apparatus too late, two or three years after they engage in the sport, while foreign athletes develop these skills the first day they step into the gym.
"That's why Chinese children cannot play with the apparatus as dexterously as the Ukrainian girl,'' she said after watching the apparatus training session.
The artistic performance of the sport may be the most difficult part for Chinese gymnasts, most of whom cannot fully comprehend the rhythm of music. "Only clever people can understand and express music with body movements,'' Xie said. "Therefore, we tested the intelligence quotient of these gymnasts.''

Xie also said many Chinese coaches themselves did not receive good artistic training, and "Most of them turned to rhythmic gymnastics coaches after retiring from athletic gymnastics.''
"So improving the abilities of the coaches is the most important thing we should do now,'' Xie said.
She said the preparations aim to achieve a breakthrough in the sport at the Olympics while on home soil.
"We want to see our red National Flag flying in the gymnastic stadium, probably in the group competitions,'' she said.


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