In pictures: inside the Chinese gymnastics training school

Beneath the twin emblems of the Chinese flag and the Olympic rings, two boys swing on the horizontal bar in a cavernous gym – the birthplace of China’s elite gymnasts.

Elsewhere, rows of children as young as four hold lunges and palm rests under the watchful eye of coaches at Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School in Xiantao, west of Wuhan.

They are among the latest recruits in China’s notoriously demanding state sports system, which has drawn legions of criticism but also made it one of the most successful Olympic nations.

Despite the difficult nature of the exercises, school officials say the focus is now on fun for the kids – “happy gymnastics” – rather than medal-obsessed methods.

“We’re more relaxed now. In the past, we certainly hoped to produce a lot of champions, ”said Liu Fen, assistant professor. “But now society and people’s minds are changing, so our way of training is also changing.”

The postponed Tokyo Olympics, which will begin in July this year, will be the culmination of years of training for the latest generation of top gymnasts in China.

The pressure to succeed is high after the Chinese gymnastics team failed to win gold at Rio 2016 – just eight years after dominating in Beijing 2008.

At the National Training Center in the capital Beijing, the Chinese flag adorns a wall with a red banner saying, “Win the Tokyo Olympics.”

Leading gymnasts interrupt their training only to review their performance on tablets or take sips from bottled water.

There is little room for error. They bow to their trainers to apologize if they don’t measure up and poor performance is punished with extra weight training at the end of a long day.

For these athletes who dream of gold at the Tokyo Games, it’s a life they embarked on from an early age.

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