THE world’s finest female diver, Gao Min, laughs uproariously and breaks into a conspiratorial grin. She is talking about the pressure Chinese divers and other athletes will feel in less than seven weeks when they compete under the weight of government and national expectations at the Olympics.
"Everyone tells them ‘don’t be nervous’," she says. "This just won’t happen. We are human beings!"
Gao, China’s "diving queen", won gold medals at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, and in three world championships, at a time when China’s sporting prowess and ascendancy was far from assured. After exploding onto the international sporting scene as a 16-year-old in 1986, she dominated the sport until her retirement after the 1992 Games in Barcelona. She remains the only female diver to have scored more than 600 points in an international event.
But to the 2000 or so children equipped with pompoms and flags and arranged in colour-coded cheering sections in the remote mining town of Jinchang, she is the smiling lady from Beijing bringing Olympic spirit and glitz to their far-flung corner of China.
Gao, 37, has travelled to Jinchang, in China’s north-western Gansu province, as an Olympic ambassador for the resources giant BHP Billiton. The Anglo-Australian miner, which paid an undisclosed sum to become the official minerals and medals sponsor for the Beijing Olympics, has been holding these events in the home cities of key Chinese customers.
Gao says the pressures Chinese athletes face today, while still formidable, are nothing compared to those of the previous generation.
At the 1988 Games in Seoul China won five gold medals, widely seen as a poor performance after the 15 gold won at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. In her autobiography Gao wrote that the pressure on athletes before the 1992 Games to atone for 1988’s paucity of gold was so great she considered suicide.
One of the most successful graduates of China’s uncompromising state sport system, Gao now preaches what must seem like heresy to old-school sporting officials. Her message to the children of Jinchang is that winning is no longer everything. China is much more confident, less defensive and topping the medals table is no longer so crucial to its self-image.
"I want every kid to understand the Olympic spirit is about participation, sharing and that is more important than a gold medal," she said.
For BHP Billiton’s long-time China president, Clinton Dines, a Queenslander who has lived in China since 1979, sponsoring the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics has been invaluable in improving the company’s image in China. BHP Billiton is sometimes viewed negatively because it is playing the resources boom hard and winning huge iron ore price increases in annual negotiations with the Chinese.
"We behave commercially aggressively [so we must be] an evil, rapacious empire … but even the Chinese media are now realising that we’re not monsters," he said. "If someone is remote then it is easy to vilify them, but the closer you are, the less easy it is to do that."
His comments could equally describe how Beijing hopes the Olympics will show the world that not only has China earned a seat at the top table of world powers, but that its unique model of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is not to be feared just because it offers an alternative development model to the parliamentary democracy of Western capitalist nations.
The one-smelter town of Jinchang reflects many aspects of modern China. The Jinchuan Group, the world’s fifth largest nickel refiner, is effectively the town. It is one of the new breed of state-owned enterprises controlling critical sectors such as resources, communications and transport that remained after Beijing began culling loss-making state-run companies in the mid-1990s. These increasingly competitive and powerful firms form the bedrock of China’s red-hot economy and Communist Party control of the country.
In line with government policy, which has shifted towards addressing the inequalities and appalling pollution that unchecked development has created, Jinchuan is trying to become more environmentally responsible. In the past five years the company has increased production five-fold while its use of water has decreased slightly. The town has benefited from new parks and other public facilities such as an artificial lake.
An evening stroll around Jinchang, depending on which way the wind is blowing, would have the average Australian gasping at the acrid air, visibly belching from the smokestacks in the middle of town. But locals say that in the 1980s and ’90s, when the town was swiftly transformed from almost nothing to an industrial hub, the pollution was indescribably bad.
Gao, who returned to live in Beijing with her young family in 2005, after a decade coaching in Canada, says many things have changed for the better in China. She recalls training outdoors in winter in pools barely above freezing point, because the country was so poor and its people isolated from the rest of the world.
"That won’t happen now … We see everything now, nothing is strange for us because we have opened up. Before we couldn’t say this or couldn’t say that, right now we can answer any question, we are more ourselves," she said.
When the Herald asked a group of children what the Olympics meant to them, one boy chimed in "faster, higher, stronger", while another said that at first he had merely been excited being here but then after trying some of the Olympic sports began to understand just how hard athletes had to train and the greatness of the Olympic spirit.
In a reflection that perhaps Gao’s message was getting across, several children said it was no big deal if China failed to top the medal tally this year.
"China is strong, we will always have a chance next time."