After Games, focus is on nation's fitness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am

China limps along behind other countries when it comes to recreational sports

World-class athletes came to Beijing for the Olympic Games. They praised venues such as the 'Bird's Nest' and 'Water Cube', and set records. Sports history was rewritten in the capital and the nation won the most gold medals.

But to Nan Fei , one element has yet to emerge. Mr Nan, a 28-year-old martial arts lover who lives in Beijing, says he is waiting for a change in people's enthusiasm towards sports.

'During the Games, people just concentrated on watching TV and discussing the competitions,' he said. 'Maybe there will be more people playing sport now that the Games are over.'

National fitness - that's the point. Once it became clear that China would top the gold medal table, major mainland newspapers and other media started carrying editorials highlighting the need to ride the success to further promote the nationwide physical fitness programme introduced by the State Council in 1995.

The authorities, who were criticised for their gold medal mindset, were called on to turn the attention and resources that had been largely spent on elite athletes to the grass-roots level. Among the targets set by the programme, which followed the passage of the Physical Health Law, was 40 per cent of the population exercising regularly by 2010.

Huang Yaling , director of the Centre for Olympic Studies and Research at Beijing Sports University, said that about 37 per cent of the population took regular exercise, defined as three times a week. But Professor Huang said that figure still trailed developed countries.

'Our country's economic development has outpaced the development of sport,' she said. 'China is a big country with a population of 1.3 billion, and we need to build many sports facilities to cater to their needs. It's very difficult to catch up with developed countries [on building facilities] within a short time.'

Sports officials have admitted the problems. In July, Liu Guoyong , deputy director of the General Administration of Sport, said the resources provided by the government fell far short of what people needed, a problem which he said 'will exist for quite a long time'.

An administration survey in 2004 found there were 6.58 sports venues per 10,000 people, a figure much lower than what it is in developed countries such as Japan, which had 200 per 10,000 people. Sports venues in mainland rural areas accounted for only about 8 per cent of the nation's total.

Professor Huang said the presence of sports and athletics facilities varied widely between the more and less developed regions on the mainland, such as coastal and inland areas, rural and urban areas, and the east of the country compared to its west.

Yet to her, the disparity was no surprise. 'If people don't have enough to eat, how can they think about playing sport?'

While many people in rural areas still face malnutrition, those in prosperous cities are facing the worldwide problem of obesity and associated illnesses, such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

Xu Guoqi , author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, said changing diets and lifestyles, coupled with parents' doting on their children, created a 'new sick man of Asia'.

Professor Xu, who specialises in history and East Asian affairs at Kalamazoo College in the US state of Michigan, said that each year Chinese authorities had released instructions to schools to encourage students to do more exercise, but such instructions were merely lip service.

In 2002, the Asian Development Bank reported that 60 million mainlanders were obese and about 200 million more were overweight.

Without a healthy population and a genuine promotion of sport among the population, Professor Xu said the country could never legitimately claim to be a 'sports superpower'.