HONG KONG - When it comes down to ordinary citizens rather than Olympic
athletes, China is hardly the sports capital of the world. Indeed, it remains a
China won a stunning 51 gold medals in last month's Summer Olympic Games in
Beijing, 15 more than the previously invincible Americans. In addition, Beijing
earned golden reviews for its iconic "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and "Water
Cube" National Aquatics Center, which have set a new international standard for
In the years leading up to Beijing's all-important hosting of the Games, an
army of scouts scoured the nation in search of elite
athletes while the Chinese leadership built first-rate facilities to train
those athletes and paid coaches handsome salaries to manage that training.
Meanwhile, sports venues for ordinary Chinese remain few and far between in a
nation that is woefully out of shape and facing, along with rising prosperity,
a growing problem with obesity and related diseases.
A national fitness program, introduced by the State Council, the cabinet, in
1995, has been a failure, but health experts hope that the triumph of hosting
such a successful Olympics will revive interest in the initiative and spark a
new fitness craze. If that is to happen, however, Beijing will need to splash
out the cash to build world-class facilities not just for elite athletes such
as basketball superstar Yao Ming and diving diva Guo Jingjing, but also for
China's increasingly podgy, athletically challenged citizenry.
It's anyone's guess how much the central government poured into the Olympics -
that's a state secret. But state media report that Beijing pumped 480 million
yuan (US$70 million) into elite sports in 2005, while only 270 million yuan
went toward public sports venues. And each of China's 63 gold-medal winners in
this summer's Games was rewarded by the state with a payment of $51,000. That
compares to the nearly $37,000 reward received by China's golden athletes in
the Athens 2004 Games.
A General Administration of Sport survey found there were 6.58 sports venues
per 10,000 people in China, not even close to what can be found in most
developed countries. For example, Japan has 200 sports venues per 10,000
people. Especially in rural areas, where only 8% of China's total sports
facilities can be found, it's hard to find a place to play badminton, table
tennis or any other sport.
Typically, in China's many villages, the only public space for exercise is the
playground of the local school. In Beijing and other big cities in the
prosperous east, it is mostly the elderly one sees taking over public parks and
even sidewalks for their daily dose of tai chi while the younger
generation is too busy making money to take regular exercise. And, even in
these cities, sports venues can be hard to find and expensive to use.
The technical operations manager of the Fengtai Olympic softball field, Sun
Bojie, recently complained that there were only six softball fields in Beijing,
a city of more than 17 million residents. No wonder, he said, the game had
failed to capture the public imagination.
And the same could be said for athletics, swimming, weightlifting and nearly
every other Olympic sport. Ironically, in China, the reigning Olympic
superpower, exercise and sport are not part of most people's lives.
Actually, if you rank a nation's sporting prowess by how many Olympic gold
medals it wins per capita, Jamaica - which won 2.2 gold medals per 1 million
inhabitants - is, hands down, the supreme sports power on the planet. China,
with a population of 1.3 billion, ranks 47th, and the US, with 305 million
people, 33rd. Such calculations may seem flippant, but they also point out the
dubiousness of equating a country's Olympic performance with its standing as a
nation - athletic or otherwise.
The reason Chinese athletes achieved such glory is not the general fitness and
athletic talent of its people. Rather, it is China's large and expensive
scouting and training system, reminiscent of those in the former Soviet Union
and East Germany, that selects children as young as five for Olympic training
and turns them into state-sponsored athletes. Also, particularly for this past
Games, in which the host was determined to shine, the Chinese sports
bureaucracy chose to target sports that offer relatively weak international
The strategy worked. While maintaining their traditional dominance in diving,
gymnastics, table tennis and badminton, Chinese athletes also scored gold
medals in women's weightlifting, archery, shooting and other sports.
US Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth has said that the Americans must
learn from the Chinese example, "China has been systematically targeting every
single available medal, and we're going to have to do that in the future. The
resources that they put toward their Olympic team and the population base and
the dedication is fantastic. It's much more difficult for the rest of the world
to compete, but that's the way it should be."
Those are high compliments from the US Olympic chief. Meanwhile, however, the
real China, in stark contrast to the Olympic China, exercises little and,
perversely, seems to be getting fatter in the cities while remaining
undernourished in the countryside. With spectacular images of the "Bird's Nest"
and the "Water Cube" still lingering, it is easy to forget that most Chinese
continue to live in rural areas, where poverty and malnourishment are
commonplace. At the same time, in the burgeoning cities, American-style obesity
has become a problem.
According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Education, 8% of urban
Chinese children between the ages of 10 and 12 are obese, while another 15% are
overweight. Compare that to a 2006 report by the US Department of Health and
Human Services, which did not identify a separate category for obesity but
found that 18.8% of Americans aged 6 to 11 were overweight. Clearly, China is
not only catching up with US in gold medals; it is also, in its cities, where
fatness is often seen as a symbol of prosperity, trying to match Americans by
the kilo. In the end, this leads to alarming increases in diabetes and heart
disease that burden the health system.
The national fitness program, which has set a goal of motivating 40% of the
population to take up regular exercise by 2010, is supposed to be the answer to
all this. And, on September 1, as streams of children returned to school in
Beijing, it was encouraging to learn that, thanks to the inspiration of the
Olympics, they are all now required to take one period of physical education
every school day.
But the truth is that daily exercise in many schools amounts to little more
than 10 minutes of stretching, and real exercise and participation in sports
remain outside the experience of most Chinese. At the same time that the
country has become an international sports superpower, it has not done much to
encourage a sports culture at home.
At this supremely auspicious point that can easily change. The same ambitious
principle that built the "Bird's Nest" and the "Water Cube" and brought the
sporting world to China this summer would work just as spectacularly for its
own citizenry: Build it, and they will come.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.