There was a time when the Chinese were never even thought of in athletic competition. They went to school, got excellent grades, went on to successful jobs and that was it, end of story. But over the recent years, the well-documented Chinese work ethic has extended from the classrooms to the sports world and the results are showing.

Over the last two decades, China has turned itself into a legitimate medal contender in every four years at the Olympics. How did China close the chasm between itself and the other powerhouse sports nations? The answer is hours of hard work and sweat put into in schools and programs dedicated to the development of athletes.

These programs vary greatly in their focus, vision and development. Some schools offer a mix of academics and a strong foundation of athletic training where attendees split their time evenly between academic and athletic achievement.

In the more intensive programs there are no student-athletes, but rather just athletes. These programs require the students to concentrate on every aspect of their specific sport or sports and accept students at various levels and age groups. Programs here are often considered “athlete producing assembly lines”. Many of these schools require participants to spend six or more hours per day training or learning their craft. They are taught everything from technique to psychology to nutrition. Because of the time commitment to these programs, large numbers of Chinese athletes can barely read beyond a typical fifth grade level after finishing these programs.

The goal of these institutions is to find talented or potentially talented young men and women and train them to attain achievements in short periods of time. Each student in these programs are hand selected by teams of doctors and specialists who scour towns and schools to find students that have athletic potential. They run tests to measure height, speed, coordination, arm span, flexibility and bone density among other unique characteristics to determine what a child will be like in the future.

Children that show extraordinary abilities are sent to programs where specialists believe they will succeed. For example, those demonstrating great balance and flexibility are assigned gymnastics or diving camps. Ping-pong takes those who have quick reflexes and high jumping and tall children to sent to basketball or volleyball camps. Specialists assign these athlete prodigies to whichever sport they feel the athletic will have the greatest impact or success.

“…In the first grade, scouts from the Communist sports machinery came to our school to hunt for future champions,” recalls Ni Ching Ching, a Los Angeles Times journalist born in China. “The event was diving. Never mind that I couldn’t swim and had no desire to be an athlete, I was told I had the right proportions and good feet. (I was) Chosen from a field of thousands to train at a state sports school, I was supposed to be thrilled to serve my country.”

Eager to become a more established sports country, China has poured in millions on sports scouts, coaches, psychologists, science, technology and programs. By 1988, China had already spent over $260 million to develop its national sports programs and they show no sign of slowing down.

In preparation for hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, more than 30,000 athletes trained full time for competition. Today, nearly 300,000 athletes refine their sports skills in China’s 150 elite sports camps and programs. China currently has the 11th most medals in Olympic history.

Will we someday see other nations start to follow China’s intensive training models? Time will tell.