It will not have surprised you to learn that the first gold of these Games went to a Chinese athlete. Yi Siling peppered the bull's-eye with pellets from a rifle in a manner beyond the reach of her opponents. Her smile expressed the uncontained joy of innocence as if posing for a snap with her mates in Top Shop to stick on Facebook for the folks back home. Scrap that. China has yet to decide on the merits of social media and does not permit its formal use. It does sanction athletic pursuits, however. At the close of the opening day's competition, China topped the table with most golds and most medals. Get used to it. Ms Siling will have been shooting that gun for six hours a day from the age of six. She is a 23-year-old veteran not alone in her youthful dedication to excellence.
Hannah Miley came fifth in the 100 metres individual medley. No shame in that, even the world record-holding American trailed in the wake of the teenage torpedo from the Orient, Ye Shiwen, who, of course, won in a time never before seen. Miley trains in a 25-metre pool in the north of Scotland. Her coach is also her father, who, when not standing poolside at five in the morning with a whistle in his hand, holds down a full-time job as a helicopter pilot serving the oil rigs off Scotland's north-east coast. As dedicated as daughter and father are to their sport, it is an endeavour that has to fit in with other stuff called life. In China, the pursuit of gold every four years is life for the chosen ones.
Six months before the Bird's Nest opened for business at the 2008 Games, the host organising committee invited targeted journalists on a series of staged visits to Beijing. The whole of Fleet Street was represented at one point or another. Having spent a few days in the company of our hosts, the stunning grandeur and monumental scale of the opening ceremony appeared routine. We toured cultural centres and local landmarks, a water treatment centre that demonstrated how the city's 15 million inhabitants drank the cleanest water on the globe. At another site responsible for monitoring the city's air quality, a group of climatologists in white coats eased our concerns about pollution during the Games. This is where the scheme to fire moisture-absorbing pellets into the atmosphere to deal with the threat of rain was hatched.
Mind-boggling as all that was, it did not impress upon my soul anything like the mark left by the remarkable students at one of Beijing's special schools. There are 50 or so such institutions dotted around the metropolitan area. Tiger mums from all around Beijing made it their life's work to get their offspring through those doors. It is the Beijing version of a scholarship to Eton, the passage to a better life, except differentiation and opportunity in this setting did not depend on class, cash or privilege, but on potential. I witnessed six-year-old veterans hanging from wall bars, raising knees to chests a million times. When they dropped to the mats below to replenish the chalk on their hands they revealed pecs like Peter Andre's, which in turn were accessorised by infantile six-packs.
These baby-faced prodigies were part of a nationwide programme that has made China the big dogs in gymnastics. Cue British excitement on Saturday when Louis Smith and the boys edged China into second in the team competition during qualification for today's medal shoot-out. Back to the school. In an adjacent hall the next generation of table tennis world-beaters were honing their trade. Walk through another door into the badminton department and the same process was going on there. And on it went through any number of doors and disciplines.
Each day began around 7am with immersion in their chosen sports and closed 12 hours later after another session on the beat. During this time the students would have dovetailed the necessary academic study. The process did not stop at sport. Under the same roof music and the arts introduced their share of the infant populace to the virtuoso production line. This hothouse experience is rolled out in every major city across China. It is nothing more than a numbers game, which explains why a 16-year-old girl can enter the Olympic pool and blow away the world record holder. She will have been at it for 10 years, effectively a professional athlete from her first day at school, dedicating her existence to this very day. Does it amount to a life fulfilled? Compared to the alternative, probably. Better to be schooled in the hothouse of athletic or musical endeavour than the poorhouse of low-income labour, mindlessly churning out cheap goods.
We should be grateful that China has shown little interest in spinning into Olympic gold rowing, sailing or cycling, pursuits in which Britain has cornered a healthy share of the medal market, if not on the opening day of these Games. Pity about Mark Cavendish on The Mall. Can't win them all, unless you are Chinese.Reuse content