China's status as a sporting superpower was achieved on the back of punishing state-led training in schools, but a softer approach has enabled today's students to seek a life beyond the gym, they say.
China's Soviet-style sports system has been criticised in the past for its methods in grooming children for sporting success from an early age at the expense of basic education and the conventional comforts of childhood -- simply because they have been identified as having future potential.
But sporting authorities in China have embarked on a period of ‘soul-searching’ in recent years, which has led to a more relaxed training environment for the country's next generation of sports stars.
Eight-year-old Yu Zhengyang is one of thousands of youngsters in China who is motivated by his own sporting dreams rather than the demands of the state.
He said the decision to leave his family home in northern China to devote five hours a day to table tennis training at a school hundreds of miles away was an easy one.
"I want to go to the Olympics. I can play table tennis well so this is my dream. I can win the gold medal," Yu, now ten years old and two years into his training at Shichahai Sports School in Beijing, told AFP.
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