The Gold Standard: James Nachtwey Photographs China’s Female Weight Lifters

Chinese weight lifters training for the London 2012 Olympics
James Nachtwey for TIME
Kang Yue is seen training for the Chinese national women's weight-lifting team in May 2012 at the national sports training center in Beijing. The 30 athletes who make up the team were competing for spots on the Olympic squad, for which Yue did not qualify.

When Chinese scouts set out to recruit athletes for their national women’s weight-lifting team in the late 1990s, they had specific criteria in mind. Calculated research had given them the perfect profile: stoic, quick, powerful and, of course, strong. By 2000, China had one of the most powerful teams in the world, and today, China’s female weight lifters are expected to dominate their competition in London.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog.)

In May, TIME sent contract photographer James Nachtwey to Beijing to photograph the national women’s weight-lifting team as it prepared for London. The photographs document the making of elite athletes in a country that has quickly become an Olympic powerhouse, earning the most gold medals of any nation in 2008’s Beijing Games.

Nachtwey’s images put faces to China’s supercharged athletic program. Photographed from behind, the arms, legs and shoulders of one team member look as solid as the massive weights she holds, with seemingly little effort, in her calloused hands. In another, Wang Mingjuan, a tiny woman at just 48 kg (106 lb.), lifts a burden that looks as if it would easily stump amateur weight lifters twice her size.

To explain China’s success in the sport, the national team’s coach Xu Jingfa offers a simple explanation: “We do everything together, and we work harder than everyone else.”

That hard work includes six-day weeks of all-day training. The 30 members of the national team wake together at 6:30 a.m. and begin a marathon schedule of exercise, physical therapy and classes that range from weight-lifting techniques to “ideological education.” Weight lifting has consumed their lives since they began training at age 10 or 11. In London, it will become clear just how much this dedication will pay off for China’s strongest women.

Read more about China’s Olympic athletes at TIME.com.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer who has covered Sept. 11 and the 2011 Japanese tsunami, among other topics, for the magazine. He was awarded the 2012 Dresden Peace Prize.

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