TANGLI VILLAGE, China -- As a child, Chen Yanqing was the fastest girl in this farming village. She often outran the boys. One day at a sporting match, a coach noticed her throwing skills and took out a tape measure. She was 11 years old, and the muscles in her arms and legs were extraordinary.So was the proposition her parents received: Release their daughter to the state, and she could go away to sports school and improve her future, with possible financial benefits for the entire family.
"It was rock hearted of us, but we had no choice," says her father, a farmer named Chen Zufu. "If we didn't send her away to sports school, she would have ended up a farmer." In rural China, that likely means an annual income of less than $2,000.
Chen Yanqing, now 29, went on to reach the heights of global competitive weightlifting. Her rise helps to explain why many think China may win the medal count in the Beijing Games -- unseating the U.S. from its spot as Summer Olympics medal king.
China is in a position to compete for the top spot because of its unique mix of central planning and poverty that drives an intense desire to get ahead. Almost all the 52 Chinese athletes who won gold medals in Athens in 2004, including Chen Yanqing, came from the nation's system of elite athletic boarding schools. The primary recruiting grounds for those schools is the poor countryside, where some 700 million of China's 1.3 billion citizens dream of joining the nation's economic renaissance.
As the world record holder in the snatch lift, Chen Yanqing is key to China's hopes when she competes on Monday. "A rich person would never let his child do this," says Mr. Chen, Yanqing's father.
These athletes lifted their nation to the No. 3 medal spot in Sydney in 2000, and to the No. 2 spot in Athens in 2004. This month, their undisguised intention is to finish on top.
Out of Poverty
Mr. Chen's decision to hand over Yanqing has borne fruit -- a gold medal in Athens, a 2006 world record that she still holds and the opportunity to win gold again as part of the first Chinese Olympic team to compete at home. Her success helped lift her entire family out of poverty, according to interviews with her parents, sister and coach. In her small village, on a remote island off of Suzhou, two hours west of Shanghai, she is a hero.