The China factor in Australia's quest for Olympic gold

rosemary-farrellDr Rosemary Farrell

Since it was announced that China would host the 2008 Olympics, images of Chinese children in impossible looking poses and training in acrobatics have appeared in the media. Chinese acrobatics, with its two-thousand-year-old tradition has a worldwide reputation, and shares a basic training regimen with other elite athletic training in China.

Less well known is that Chinese trainers and their specialised training techniques also feature in Australian elite athlete training. Chinese acrobatic training, skills and acts were introduced to Australian new circus by visiting Chinese trainers in 1983. For twenty-five years members of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Circus Oz and other Australian new circus companies have benefited from a hybrid cross-cultural collaboration by embodying a disciplined Chinese training regimen. The experiences of the Australians who received the training give us a glimpse of how China approaches acrobatics and sports in general

When seven Chinese acrobatics trainers came to Australia in 1983 for the Nanjing Project, they had a clear set of training rules for the Australian students, but overall the main focus was not to fail'. The Chinese trainers came with determination to improve the standard of physical ability and skill level of the Australian participants. They first set about examining the physical and acrobatic standards of individual child and adult trainees.

Each child wanting to train in contortion was x-rayed and only those with the correct skeletal alignment were chosen. Next they were physically examined for joint construction, flexibility and strength. In China, acrobats born with a physical suitability are chosen for training. This reduces the incidence of injury and increases the likelihood of possible world class acrobats receiving an opportunity to train.

One Australian participant in the Nanjing Project, who was grateful for this selection process explained that the Chinese trainers identified that she did not have the correct shoulder joints for handstands, a major strength training skill, and not to waste her time struggling to achieve competency but to choose another area of circus training. It was explained that her body would limit her ability to acquire the skill to a high enough standard to perform acrobatics.

The focus of the trainers was on extending the strength and flexibility of the students most likely to benefit from their methods and this meant the participants were split into two groups. Intensive training was reserved for the most suitable body types and these students had one-to-one and one-to-two training. One child student of contortion training said that she cried through the training because it was very intense yet she wanted to develop her skills, and with the methods employed her flexibility and strength improved.

Starting at 7am each morning, the students worked to improve their core strength and flexibility in the four areas of basic training'; legs, handstands, backbends and tumbling. On an indoor basketball court they lined up and did leg stretches on a ballet barre and leg kicks to Chinese counts up and down the space. Handstands were done up against a wall at first and as their strength improved some students were able to sustain a handstand for one or two minutes an impressive achievement, but in China, they were told, students read a book as they held a handstand.

The strongest Australian participants also trained in advanced backbend and tumbling techniques. These skills were necessary for hoop diving, a Chinese acrobatic act and one adopted by the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and Circus Oz. This act has continued to evolve and remains a part of both companies' repertoires. A Chinese hoop diving act, performed by members of Circus Oz, even appears in an Australian stamp collection commemorating 150 years of Australian circus.

Nanjing Project students were expected to put many extra hours into improving their ability at each step of the process of training. Head trainer, Lu Yi, said he would choose a thoughtful student over a physically active one because such a student demonstrated an ability to quietly focus and work. In China an acrobatic skill is practiced one hundred times perfectly in rehearsal before it is performed once on stage.

Many Australian participants who were chosen for their body types and for their ability to commit to the Chinese training regimen went on to have international circus careers and became cultural envoys of Australia.

Our collaboration with China and our athletes' embodying of Chinese training methods has also been instrumental in Australian athletes' success in some sports. Next month, Australian students of Chinese speciality training in gymnastics and diving from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) will compete at the Beijing Olympics continuing our history of Chinese physical training of Australian elite athletes for the world stage.

Dr Rosemary Farrell is a lecturer in theatre and drama at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga campus.