Olympic hopeful's 2,600-mile running regime outrages China

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From the UK Independent newspaper, by Clifford Coonan in Beijing Published: 10 August 2007

With her proud, ambitious father urging her on, eight-year-old Zhang Huimin is running from Sanya on Hainan island in southern China, to the capital, Beijing, in the north, a journey of 2,600 miles.

The sight of her pounding the tarmac has stirred hearts and prompted outrage in a country feverish with Olympic spirit, with less than a year to go to the Beijing Games.

"We've arrived in Que county in Henan province now and we have 70 per cent of the project behind us," said her father, Zhang Jianmin, a farmer from Linggao, near Sanya.

The ultra-marathon has exercised Chinese commentators. Is this an admirable form of Olympic spirit, or is this patriotism and parental ambition gone mad?

Huimin, who stands just over 4ft (122cm) tall and weighs just 46lbs (21kg), looks like she might blow away in the wind, but her endurance is astonishing. The images are startling, clad in her pink Disney tracksuit as she accompanies a group of adult runners in a quick photo opportunity in a southern village, or wearing her singlet as she runs... and runs.

She causes quite a stir wherever she goes, with a mixed response - some onlookers praise her national fervour, while others think her too young. Her daily training starts with a 40-kilometre run at 3am, then school, then more running.

Mr Zhang has come in for a lot of criticism since the run started on 3 July. There were reports Huimin had a bad cough after reaching Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, 15 days into her journey. One critic described Mr Zhang as a selfish father behaving like someone trying to make a plant grow faster by pulling it. "He should at least heed the doctors' advice that such excessive exercise can have adverse effects," Wu Jiayin wrote in the Shanghai Daily, echoing hundreds of of blog comments.

Next stop is Langfang in Hebei province on 15 August, where she will run an international marathon, then on to Tianjin and finally Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which they expect to reach on 28 August.

A director of a sports school in Hainan told local media that he advised Mr Zhang to withdraw his daughter from her training "because it would affect her heart, nerves and hormones". Health experts have said that training too much at such a young age can wear down barely formed cartilage, delay menstruation, reduce bone density and stunt growth.

She has kept going by drinking a mixture of honey, milk and raw eggs concocted by her father, which experts have also criticised. He is unconcerned. "She's been training for four years and it's natural for her to run these distances," he said. "She sometimes runs 80 kilometres a day when training. This is less than usual."

Although Huimin is too young to compete in the Beijing Games, Mr Zhang believes she can compete in the 2016 Games, when she will be 17. "She's in school now, but if she wants to and is interested then we can focus exclusively on running," he said.

Mr Zhang is depicted as an avid sports fan who failed to attain his own dreams and is living vicariously through his daughter. There have been reports that he signed a 20,000-yuan (£1,300) contract with a sports shoe company, but he denied money had changed hands. He said the company was paying for his hotel rooms .

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