Some Observations on the Chinese Swimming Scene

BEIJING, China, December 21. A former collegiate swimmer at Villanova University, Ryan Costella has been reading for a master’s degree in Chinese Economics from the University of Cambridge. While performing research in Beijing, Costella had the opportunity to attend the Chinese National Games swimming competition. Here are his observations.

The Athletes: I know what a "juiced up" girl looks like, and to be honest, I didn't see any "juiced up" athletes (male or female) at this competition. What I did see was a lot of young talent. None of the results were very impressive in terms of times – only a few Asian records and a few Chinese National records – nothing close to world records.

One of the most impressive swims was from a 15-year-old who went 8:29 in the 800 freestyle. Her last 100 was incredible. She came on with some legs like I've never seen in a last 100. All of the girls in the final race had great legs the whole way – no two-beaters – and they really cranked the legs the last 100. This 15-year-old really drove it home, though. She wasn't even near the front of the pack, and then she turned it on and finished in a 59! It was incredible to watch.

Other than that swim, I wasn't really impressed with any of their athletes or swims. Granted there were some decent swims across the board, but nothing jaw dropping. They're young and seem talented, but as always with a government controlled athletic system, it comes down to heart. I think the advantage of US athletes is that they swim with a passion and love for the sport most Chinese athletes don't have.

For Americans it's about personal strife and achieving personal goals. For the Chinese, it's about helping your family and preserving their future with your performances.

The Competition: The Chinese ran a very impressive, smooth and organized swimming competition. The venue for the National Games was spectacular. The complex looked like an Olympic park full with the lights, water fountains, music, etc. The pool was first class, tons of room, separate facilities away from the public so the athletes could warm up and warm down in peace. From all of my observations, everything was carried out in a professional and correct manner according to FINA standards. From watching three nights of the competition, I can tell you that the Beijing Olympics will be absolutely incredible. They will spare no expense, and everything will be first class and top of the line. If nothing else, everything will be duly impressed.

Coaching: I was able to speak with a few former Olympic athletes here from China – all of whom are my personal friends. The only interesting thing we talked about was the pressure that is on the provincial heads to produce gold medals. They expressed that there is a huge amount of pressure for gold medals this coming Olympics.

I don't think this is different than years before, but it's interesting. To understand China, one needs to understand the system. It's not necessarily the coaches who are pressured to get the medals, or the athletes. Oftentimes, it's the people in the administration who are pressured by the national government to produce gold medals at the games, so that always complicates things. With that said, China is very worried about it's international image, and they have really started beefing up on anti-doping measures and punishments.

The Olympics is just as much an economic and political event apart from being a sports show. Their national image is at stake, and they do not want that tainted with drugs and performance enhancing allegations. I would be very surprised to find any problems like that for the upcoming Olympics, but then again, WHO KNOWS!

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