Why China’s elite athletes soar internationally as its schoolkids plod at home

While Beijing spends heavily training elite athletes to win gold medals, its young people remain unable – or reluctant – to exercise owing to a lack of facilities, a shortage of qualified teachers and safety concerns

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 11:16pm

While Beijing spends huge sums of money selecting and training athletes to win medals at international sporting events – more than 1 billion yuan (US$146 million) last year alone, according to data from the General Administration of Sport – young Chinese remain unable, or reluctant, to find the time and space to exercise.

They are daunted by a lack of facilities, a shortage of qualified teachers, safety concerns and other issues, observers said.

Moreover, the lack of athletic engagement and opportunities to exercise outdoors could be contributing to the dramatic rise among Chinese children of the twin epidemics of obesity and myopia, research suggests.

The inconsistency between competitive sports and participation among young people was highlighted earlier this month when China once again topped the medal table at the Asian Games.

Over the course of two weeks in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Palembang, China amassed 289 medals – 132 gold, 92 silver and 65 bronze. Its nearest rival was Japan, with 205 medals, including 75 gold.

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But while China’s athletes were taking to the podium, back at Hefei No 45 Middle School in the east China province of Anhui, nine overwhelmed teachers were attempting to provide physical activity and skills education classes to more than 3,000 pupils, according to PE teacher Li Kunlong.

Several classes often had to share a playground that measured just 250 metres (273 yards) around, he said.

“Classes have to take turns doing exercises that consume space. For example, when one class is running, the others skip rope.”

Similar deficiencies exist at most schools in Shanghai, China’s largest metropolis. Few of them, for instance, have a 400 metre running track, an amenity seen globally by health and fitness specialists as essential for building healthy habits, promoting teamwork, ensuring fitness, teaching discipline, improving confidence and having fun.

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Illustrating the constraints on sports participation in China, Alicia Lu, the mother of a second-grade pupil at a school in Xujiahui, said the maths teacher handles her son’s PE classes.

“When I was young, my school didn’t have a teacher specialising in sports, so teachers for other subjects often took over,” she said. “It surprised me that so many years have passed and things are still the same.”

Lu said also she was “very upset about the ban on pupils going to the playground during breaks – they can only go to the restroom or stay in the classroom” owing to an “unwritten rule” that forbids pupils from playing or exercising on the playground, except during PE classes, to prevent injuries.

She declined to give the school’s name to protect her child from any fallout, she said.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Chinese education think tank, said that “schools are often worried that young pupils, who often can’t take good care of themselves, could hurt themselves or others if they were set free in playground during breaks, when teachers are also supposed to take a rest and not looking after them”.

Lu also disparaged limiting the period children could play outdoors in the natural light, increasing their chances of developing myopia, or short-sightedness.

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Myopia occurs when the eyeball is too long relative to the focusing power of the cornea and lens of the eye. Light does not focus on the retina as it should, making distant objects appear blurry.

Research suggests that lack of exposure to natural light increases the onset of myopia in children.

The disorder is widespread among children in Asia and in China in particular.

According to studies conducted from 1971 to 2004, the prevalence of myopia among children in China was reported as high as 90 per cent, according to A Parent’s Guide to Raising Children with Healthy Vision, by US optometrists Nicholas Despotidis and Noah Tannen, and junior school teacher Kimberly Lee.

By contrast, the US increase was documented at 66 per cent, according to the book.

Pointing to the drawbacks of denying children the opportunity to exercise outdoors, a recent Chinese study published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology concluded that bright outdoor light stimulated the release of the retinal transmitter dopamine, which blocked the axial growth of the eye and inhibited myopia.

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In an attempt to stem the rapid spread of myopia among young Chinese, the government recently announced a national plan to keep the proportion of children unable to see clearly from a distance without eyeglasses below 60 per cent at junior high schools and 70 per cent at high schools, by 2030.

Reflecting how myopia has accelerated among Chinese youngsters, those two numbers were 74 per cent and 83 per cent, respectively, in 2014, according to an official survey jointly conducted by 10 ministries that year. Even for primary schoolchildren, the rate was as high as 45 per cent, it showed.

A lack of daily exercise at schools also is connected to the onset of obesity in China, researchers have found.

About 12 per cent of Chinese people were considered obese, Liang Xiaofeng of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said last year.

While that figure was lower than the 38 per cent recorded in the United States, it was increasing fast, especially among children and youth, Liang said.

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Liu Dongfeng, a professor with the School of Economics and Management at the Shanghai University of Sport, said the inconsistency between China’s success in competitive sport and the lack of athletic engagement among schoolchildren epitomised a sport system that was separated from education.

While excelling at sports in the US could lead to a place at a top college, in China it was more likely to lead to a sports school where gruelling training routines were the norm and academic study was ignored, he said.

Sports schools are regarded as the foundation of China’s sport system, a kind of greenhouse for cultivating gold medallists, from which local sports bureaus select athletes. If the provincial or national team picks up a budding star, it will put him or her on salary as an employee of the sports bureau.

But if that person fails to win a spot on a government team, then the years spent sacrificing academic study for training often will keep the once-promising athlete out of a good university.

“Under our system, athletics conflicts with academic study,” Liu said. “But I think it shouldn’t be an obstacle. Instead, biologically getting a good amount of exercise helps study.”

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Many top US colleges have bred national and even world champions.

For instance, since 2007, Stanford University in California has placed 47 students on the past four US Olympic teams and in 17 national championships, according to a Money magazine study last year.

To encourage pupils to increase their physical activity, authorities in China have increased the value of sport tests that are part of high school entrance exams.

For instance, in Hefei, a sports test now accounts for 60 points in the 820-point exams, which also include written tests in seven other subjects. Previously, sport tests used to be worth just 40 points, according to Li, the PE teacher.

The new policy would encourage schools and parents to attach greater importance to athletics, given their increased importance in the high school admission process, he said.

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But Xiong of the 21st Century Education Research Institute criticised the point system, saying it had led schools to put too much emphasis on sports activities.

The problem was that schools were obsessed with covering what was in the exams instead of catering to individual children’s needs and likes, he said.

“We must reform the way of assessing pupils if we want to improve school sports,” Xiong said.

“Schools should pay attention to the interests and fitness of individuals. If we keep this mindset [of exercising to get good test scores], we can hardly see individual development.”