Gold for elite athletes, fat chance for the rest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2008, 12:00am

Almost two weeks into the Olympics, China sits atop the medals table and its athletes have never been more popular. But their success has come at a fearsome price.

After China won 32 gold medals at the Athens Olympics, academics calculated that each one of those medals cost 700 million yuan (HK$797 million), when the investment in sporting and scientific facilities, as well as the coaching and selection of the athletes, was added up.

It is likely that the gold medals being hung around the necks of mainland athletes in Beijing will be even more expensive.

Then there's the amount of money spent on new stadiums - 4.5 billion yuan for the 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium and the 'Water Cube' Aquatics Centre alone - and on upgrading the existing venues. A conservative estimate of the cost to Beijing of hosting the Olympics would be US$40 billion. No wonder that even the richest countries think twice before bidding for the Games.

China, though, is a developing country. The economy is huge but, if you measure the mainland's wealth per person, the country ranks 109th in the world - on a par with the likes of Morocco.

But not content with staging the Olympics, the authorities are determined to dominate them and, over the past eight years, have thrown money at its elite athletes in unparalleled fashion.

For the mainland's leaders, sport is a way of projecting power and of boosting the country's prestige overseas. Hence the investment in minority sports like archery and shooting, activities as alien to most Chinese as pandas are to Britain, in an effort to ensure success in the medals table.

Those athletes who can compete with the best of the west in major sports, like Yao Ming , take on a significance that few sportsmen and women elsewhere ever achieve. They are actively promoted as very visible symbols of China's resurgence.

But, while the top athletes enjoy unrivalled facilities, and can earn a fortune from advertising contracts, the vast majority of people on the mainland who want to play sport for fun have to make do with a few outdoor ping-pong tables.

Such is the paucity of sports venues for the general public that, on summer nights in cities, people take to the streets to dance in groups, or play badminton. With the membership fees for gyms putting them out of reach of ordinary people, they have no other options, apart from simple exercise machines, if they want to stay fit.

The lack of places to play sport is one reason why mainlanders are getting fatter quicker than people in any other developing country, with the exception of Mexico. According to a new study by the influential American public health journal Health Affairs, one-quarter of the population are now officially overweight or obese. By 2028, that number is predicted to have doubled because of changes in diet and lifestyles.

Despite the potential impact of half a billion fat people on the economy, there is no sign of the government doing anything about the problem. But rates of cancer and heart disease are already rising and, in the future, threaten to overwhelm the already inadequate health system. Productivity will be severely affected, too. The study estimates that all those overweight people could end up costing the mainland between 4 per cent and 8 per cent of its total gross domestic product.

In the past, authorities didn't need to worry about people getting fat. But rising incomes have seen the traditional vegetable and rice diet replaced by protein- and fat-rich meals. Cars are replacing bicycles and fewer people do manual labour.

Now, as China's athletes reap the rewards of unlimited backing with taxpayers' money, it's time the authorities invested in sporting facilities for all. If they don't, then in future, China will be topping the world obesity league as well as the Olympics medal table.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist