Making sport a vital part of Chinese society

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2008, 12:00am

The Olympic gold medal-winning prowess of China's athletes is stunning. Their streaking ahead of the rest of the field, in events that have for so long been the domain of nations with proud sporting pedigrees, says much about the manner in which training has evolved on the mainland. But, for all the pride we feel for the achievements, it must be recalled that the Games are not just about winning medals and breaking world records; at their heart is sport, a vital element of any society.

Gao Hong, who won a silver medal as the goalkeeper of China's 1996 Olympics soccer team, knows well what sport is about. As she explains in the article leading our Life section today, sport is good for the community. It keeps participants fit and healthy, teaches teamwork and discipline, builds confidence and is enjoyable.

There is nothing new in what she says: such benefits were well known to the organisers of the modern Olympic movement. Among the reasons for the Games' revival in Athens 112 years ago was the promotion of sport. Through spectators taking up such pursuits, the world would become a better and healthier place, it was reasoned.

The idea has been embraced in Europe, North America, Australia and a handful of developing countries, but the mainland has been slow to catch on. Now authorities have used it to build national prestige and, as six days of Olympic competition shows, they have achieved remarkable results. They have much more to do, however, when it comes to encouraging sport in the community.

Gao has dedicated her retirement from top-level soccer to fostering a sporting culture on the mainland. She has a huge task ahead. The mainland has few sporting clubs and societies, despite official policy since 1984 being to encourage their formation. Students are supposed to do an hour of physical education each day, but the reality is that academic studies are foremost and sport is given lukewarm attention.

When the Games end, authorities should seize on the momentum to promote sport. While it is good to see China winning medals, it would be even better to see Chinese on playing fields and in community halls benefiting from what participation, too, can bring.