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852 days to go
An ambitious plan has been hatched to bring the largely undiscovered joy of participating in sport to the masses on the mainland. Peter Goff reports
Behind the scenes a sporting project of an astounding scale is quietly taking off, and ultimately tens of millions of people will lace up running shoes as a result. With all the talk about issues such as budgets, air quality, human rights and building projects, the topic of sport often takes a back seat in the run up to the Olympic Games - particularly sport for the masses.
When the International Olympic Committee awards a city the games, one of the key objectives is to get the ordinary people in the host country playing more sport. And the rewards are obvious: doctors and sociologists agree it creates a healthier, happier population. But in China, that presents a monumental challenge. Chinese are not particularly sporty, as nations go, but ambitious plans are afoot to use the Olympics as a lever to get the average Zhou regularly building up a sweat on the playing fields.
According to a recent study, 90 per cent of Chinese schoolkids play some type of sport regularly - but they have no choice. It's obligatory and much as many of them may hate it, only a doctor's certificate can get them away from it. But as soon as they leave school they sit down in droves - less than 20 per cent of young adults play any kind of sport in China's cities and towns.
And in the rural areas, only about eight per cent of adults engage in any kind of sporting activity. When Chinese retire, many take up tai chi and other gentle martial arts, so the figure bounces back up to about 45 per cent, but across the board officials reckon less than 34 per cent of the country play any kind of sport. In western countries, the figure tends to lie from 60 to 70 per cent.
Part of the reason for this is economic, as the rural poor in particular invest their energies in eking out a living. And part of it is cultural - they'd rather spend their spare time playing mahjong, poker or video games than panting around a court, a pitch or a track.
But according to Xu Chuan, who runs China's Sport for All programme, much of the blame is due to a lack of awareness and a lack of facilities. That's what he's trying to fix.
'It's no surprise the peasants don't play sport,' he said. 'They make up more than 80 per cent of the population but nothing is organised for them and they have hardly anywhere to play.'
There are about 850,000 sports fields and courts scattered across China, but only eight per cent of them are in rural areas. 'You travel through the villages and you realise there are no sporting amenities for these billion people or more,' he said.
Spurred on by the IOC and the looming Beijing Games, his department has come up with a mammoth plan to bring sport to the masses.
Over the next few years the government will build no fewer than 600,000 basketball courts around the country, one for every village in the nation.
Aside from basketball nets, each court will have two table tennis tables. They chose basketball as the courts are cheap and multifunctional, easily adapted for other sports such as volleyball, badminton, aerobics, martial arts, as well as community gatherings. Officials considered laying soccer pitches in each village instead, but ruled it out as good land is relatively scarce and grass is difficult and expensive to maintain.
Each of the cement outdoor courts will cost 20,000 yuan to build, with a further 8,000 yuan for equipment - not a whole lot for each one, but adding up to a huge investment of 16.8 billion yuan.
'It sounds like such a modest suggestion, building one basketball court in each village, but in a country the size of China it is a massive project,' Xu said.
A second part of the Sport for All project is to open up school sports facilities to the masses. Of the 850,000 courts and pitches around the country, 670,000 of them belong to schools and colleges and so are only available to students. Backed by a new law that is being drawn up, the government plans to oblige schools and colleges to open up their sporting facilities to the general public at certain times.
With all these facilities coming on line, the sports management bureau plans to launch widespread educational campaigns to teach people more about the Olympics and its various sports, followed by a flurry of co-ordinated tournaments and events that are designed to get the masses moving.
'The Olympics will have a big impact,' Xu said. 'Most Chinese people don't really understand sports.
'But with all the public relations we can generate around the games, with the full support of governments at all levels, people will start to understand sport more. More facilities and more awareness will lead to more participation.'
The target is to boost the number of people playing sports regularly up from 34 per cent of the overall population to 40 per cent by the end of the decade.
The 'modest' project should result in an extra 80 million people getting involved in sports, having fun and getting regular exercise - not a bad legacy for a 16-day fest in the capital.