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Young Chinese Children Train for Future Olympics

Young children are sent to sports schools to endure grueling training for the goal of achieving Olympic medals. But things are changing.

A boy practices during a gymnastics lesson at the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School in Shanghai on May 4, 2016.

China's sports system has been enormously successful since the country returned to the Olympic fold in 1980, and the Chinese government has huge interest in harvesting as many Olympic gold medals as possible. But the system is beginning to break down.

ALY SONG / Reuters

Girls practice handstand at the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School on March 23, 2016.

Many Chinese parents used to send their kids to sports schools, lured by government subsidies and promising-looking careers for their children. Nowadays fewer parents are willing to let their children endure grueling training routines from as young as six years old, leading to a fall in student numbers.

ALY SONG / Reuters

A girl tries to lift up her legs and reach a stick held by her coach at the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School on May 4.

ALY SONG / Reuters

The girls cries during her training.

ALY SONG / Reuters

A coach helps a girl with her posture March 23.

An important reason why there are less children going to sports schools is that the tales of difficulties facing retired athletes jar against rising expectations of education standards among China's booming middle class.

ALY SONG / Reuters

Girls practice sit-ups on May 4.

Schools like the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School are going into kindergartens to advertise gymnastics as an after-school play time activity to parents. "We call it happy gymnastics," said its principal Zhu Zengxiang.

ALY SONG / Reuters

A girl stretches her leg to reach a balance beam on May 4.

ALY SONG / Reuters

Twin sisters wearing identical tights lie on a balance beam as they watch other children practice at the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School on May 4.

ALY SONG / Reuters

Students at the Shichahai Sports School pass a poster featuring the school's former students who became Olympic champions, in Beijing on May 18, 2016. The text on the poster reads "Learn from Olympic champions."

DAMIR SAGOLJ / Reuters

A boys lies on ground and stretches his legs during a break at the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School on March 23.

ALY SONG / Reuters

Students practice table tennis at the Shichahai Sports School in Beijing on May 17.

In April, the China Sports Daily reported that the number of Chinese athletes training to be table tennis players had fallen by almost a quarter since 1987 to 23,266.

DAMIR SAGOLJ / Reuters

Students at the Shichahai Sports School attend a class in Beijing on May 18.

Vice headmaster of Shichahai Zhang Jing said the school offers "comprehensive development" and equips athletes with the skills needed for life after sport.

DAMIR SAGOLJ / Reuters