Eighteen Chinese boys pick up heavy loads and begin running around the perimeter of the Greco-Roman wrestling hall. Each load is actually a classmate who’s clinging to the carrier’s back — or to his front. Or who’s draped across his shoulders. Sometimes the cargo is right-side up, sometimes upside down, sometimes sideways. After carrying their classmates for 45 minutes, each pair switches roles and another 45-minute session begins.
by Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D.
In a neighboring room, 35 boys and 20 girls are doing similar drills designed to enhance their freestyle wrestling. In another training hall, girls and boys lift concrete blocks to build grip strength for shuai chiao. Across the way, the san da team kicks itself to exhaustion. In a nearby room, gi-clad bodies slap the mat during judo practice. In a different gym, boxers work the heavy bags. And not far away, karate and taekwondo teams train their hearts out, hoping to one day win gold for their country.
Such is life at Weifang Sports School in the People’s Republic of China. Funny thing is, this very scene is repeated every day in sports schools across China.
In spring 2018, I accepted a job as director of a joint-venture American education company in the city of Weifang, Shandong province. I’d been on the fence about whether I could live comfortably in such a remote city, but then I learned that my wrestling teammate from Shanghai University of Sport, a guy named Zhengtong, was a Weifang native and would be there to help arrange my training and get me settled in. That would make things a lot easier, I figured.
Zhengtong had graduated from the sports university with a wrestling degree the previous year, which prompted me to ask what he’d been doing. “Nothing,” he said.
And he meant it. He hadn’t worked or trained since graduation. This seemed to be the unifying theme among the ex-fighters of Weifang. I went on to meet many former national or professional athletes, and most were unemployed and no longer training.
In a way, Weifang marked a crucial point in my China experience. Years earlier, I’d trained at Shaolin Temple, where I got to see how the young san da fighters and wushu practitioners are weeded out. Then I studied at the sports university, where only the best Chinese athletes are accepted. Given that there are more than 250,000 kids enrolled in sports schools, plus another 100,000 in kung fu schools, but only about 30,000 in sports universities, I’d always wondered what happened to the ones who didn’t make it. Now I was discovering that their plight was not too different from that of the sports graduates: They were overweight and unemployed.
Many of China’s top wrestlers and san da fighters come from Shandong province. They grow up in sports schools or wuxiao (kung fu schools). During their high-school years, if they win a national title, they may be invited to move to the sports university, as was the case with Zhengtong. At age 14, he was already living at Shanghai University of Sport, training with the pro team. Exceptional athletes who don’t win a national title may be invited, on graduating from high school, to compete for a spot.
The universities in China are tiered, with Beijing, Shanghai and Xian being the best and the provincial universities and institutes being the lowest. To test for entrance into Shanghai University of Sport, wrestlers and fighters undergo two days of brutal drilling and contests that eliminate the majority of applicants. Since most of the teams tend to have about 30 members, this means that in any given year, the number of openings is in the single digits. And some of those spots will already be occupied by national title winners. In the end, there can be as many as 100 athletes from sports schools or wuxiao across China competing for five or six openings on a university team.
Most will collapse during the two days of drills, and that results in their elimination. For those who remain, the final weeding out comes at the end of day two when, if they’re wrestlers or judoka, they have to execute 12 unique throws against a compliant opponent in 30 seconds. Final tests for hopefuls pursuing other arts are similarly demanding.
Those who make it onto the university teams are the best. Those who make it onto the top university teams — Beijing, Shanghai and Xian — are better still. Those who fail to do either know that their life in competitive athletics is finished. It also means that their education is basically over.
For those accepted into a university, graduation is not a given. Injuries and poor performance can mean being cut from the team, which for many results in a dismissal from the university. Others manage to remain on the team but fail to complete the academic requirements for graduation. They simply do their martial art for four years and then leave empty-handed.
Zhengtong was lucky in that not only was he accepted at Shanghai University of Sport, but he also managed to graduate. However, he did so without having learned much of anything. In his own words: “I know nothing. And I don’t know how to make money.”
At age 12, he stopped attending academic classes. “Once I started wrestling, I stopped studying,” he said. “At the sports school, we were supposed to have a half day of training and a half day of studying. Instead, we trained three times a day and never studied. Now I don’t know anything.”
He was left with a bachelor’s degree, which was worth little, and a lifetime of wrestling knowledge, which he saw no way to monetize.
Some of the sports-university graduates go on to find careers. The best ones compete for positions with the police — or the special police, which is the dream of most boys. One of my training mates at the university was Liuxin, a san da major and a gold medalist in both san da and karate. He said that when he tested for the special police, 200 candidates showed up to compete for 17 spots, 11 of which went to graduates of Shanghai University of Sport.
“People from other places were better than us at culture,” Liuxin said, meaning students from other universities had a better education than the sports grads. “But they don’t have our strength. We beat them in all the physical tests.”
One wrestling graduate I know landed a job as a gym teacher in a government school, which is a coveted, although horribly paid, civil-service position. A few of the wushu grads opened their own academies and struggled financially. Some of the martial arts or bodybuilding grads got jobs as trainers in health clubs. For the most part, none of them seemed to be doing very well. And these were the lucky ones.
Now, along with Zhengtong, I was in Weifang, surrounded by the non-graduates, the ones who didn’t even make it onto the university teams.
(To be continued.)
Antonio Graceffo’s book
Warrior Odyssey is available at blackbeltmag.com/store.