The Red Race

I received an email this afternoon from a friend who told me that I needed to find a copy of a documentary entitled “The Red Race,” which had aired Monday night on Shanghai’s venerable Documentary Channel. Directed by Gan Chao, a Shanghainese documentary filmmaker, the film offers stark and disturbing footage of a Shanghai-area gymnastics training center. I haven’t been able to find a complete copy of the film online, but there’s a ten minute excerpt available on YouTube complete with a Spanish voiceover. Don’t worry about the language issues, though: the footage itself tells enough of a story.

The film appears to have been released during the Olympics, which is why I must’ve missed it (along with all of the other China-oriented material unleashed and lost during that period). In any case, it seems to have been screened at a number of Western film festivals in the late summer and early fall of 2008. Those few who’ve written about it seem to fixate on the same sequence: two very young girls, in obvious pain, hanging from a parallel bar. The passage is equally engaging and disturbing, and you’ll find it in the aforementioned YouTube clip.

What I find particularly curious about the film (or, at least, the ten minutes that I screened on YouTube) is just how much it conforms to the worst Western stereotypes and fears of Chinese athletic training and – in contrast – how differently it was perceived in a Shanghai Daily article promoting it earlier this week. Whereas this English-language blog refers to the footage as displaying all the characteristics of “child abuse,” the Shanghai Daily quotes the director:

“When I took a gym class in 2007, I noticed these child gymnasts around me,” recalls Gan, 31. “I was touched by their optimism, courage and perseverance in spite of tears and injuries. I immediately decided to make a film chronicling their childhood.”

To my sensibilities, the former assessment seems far more apt. I found the footage to be deeply disturbing, and I find it hard to believe that Shanghainese sensibilities wouldn’t be similarly offended. In any case, decide for yourself, here.

In fairness, brutal exploitation of young athletes is an age-old phenomenon that takes on the national characteristics of wherever it occurs. For a very well-written (though not nearly as brutal) American example, see Michael Sokolove’s outrageously good “Allonzo Trier Is in the Game,” from the March 19 issue of the NYT Sunday Magazine. Just to be clear: I’m not drawing moral equivalents. But the NYT piece is, in its own way, a more affluent (by comparison) expression of the same phenomenon documented in “The Red Race.”


  1. i wont translate the whole thing but the spanish language does say within the first 45 secs that children renounce their childhood for their olympic dreams.

  2. As the Seattle PI (RIP) once put it: “Elite gymnastics demands a high pain threshold.” (“Star gymnast has battled pain throughout UW career”, April 1, 2004. She got her first injury at the age of 9, and has been in and out of injury ever since.)

    Humans are not meant to swing around on parallel bars. (Archery, perhaps, is a different matter.) As long as we give product endorsements and accolades to those who get gold medals doing so, what you find disturbing in the video will persist, not just in China, but throughout the world.

  3. Humberto – I realize that. From what I’ve been told about the remainder of the film, it might be more accurate if the announcer says that it’s the parents who renounce childhood in favor of the Olympic dreams. These kids are not exactly there on their own volition.

    And Tom – Right on. After I posted this last night, I thought of Bela Karolyi and the accusations that he abused Romania gymnasts. He can’t be the only gymnastics coach to do so. Either way, though, this is a powerful piece of film, and I hope I conveyed that I don’t consider this a particularly Chinese phenomenon (again, the Alonze Trier profile from the NYT mag).

  4. I am surprised that this footage would be shown on Shanghai TV. If it was shown on a US program like 60 Minutes there would be calls for a congressional investigation.

  5. It’s admirable to try to take pains to point out shortcomings in cultures and to point out that we all have our problems. However, we shouldn’t be shy about being judgemental – especially when it comes to abuse of humans or other sentient creatures. I think the treatment of children we see in these videos is inhumane and constitutes child abuse – no if ands or buts about it. These children are forced to do this by adults and often for “the nation”. The only way to stop such abuse is to call it like we see it!

  6. What’s their long-term prospects? This harsh training would be vaguely acceptable if they could be assured of a comfortable living once they became older, but from stories on ESWN athletes past their prime live on poor pensions.

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