Archive for Monday, August 4, 2008

Fitness not for all in China

August 4, 2008


— When Wu Yifu wants to play basketball with his friends, he has to travel 30 minutes by subway, pay $2, and then wait up to two hours to get on the public court. If he tries to slip in without paying, he faces a $15 fine. Sure it's a bit of a hassle, the 15-year-old junior high student said, but it's still better than other Beijing basketball courts that charge twice as much.

Wu is lucky. At least he has someplace to go. As China prepares to host the Olympics, dreaming of national glory and gold medals galore, a huge number of Chinese lack even basic exercise facilities to help release stress in this tightly wound society.

No time to exercise

The disconnect reflects a system that has put most of its money and political will into its elite sports system and relatively little into fitness programs for the average Zhou.

China's changing social and economic dynamics also have made younger residents less likely to focus on physical conditioning.

"Chinese parents tend to be concerned only with studying, studying," said Ma Xiuhua, a "50-something" mother and manager of a sports equipment store in downtown Beijing. Although China recently beefed up rural sports budgets, a survey last year found only one in 10 Chinese met the national physical training standard, a 20 percent decline since 2000.

In Beijing's Jianguomen neighborhood, most of those exercising along a narrow strip of land beside the exhaust-choked second ring road are senior citizens. Some are on brightly colored steel bars, others play Ping Pong or badminton without a net.

About 47 percent of Chinese retirees exercise each week, according to one study, compared with just 14 percent of working-age Chinese. That compares with 47 percent of all American women and 50 percent of American men, according to a 2005 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the group's most recent.

"Younger people don't seem to have time to exercise," said Shi Xueqin, 80, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. "They're too worried about making money."

Not that they necessarily could if they wanted to. About 60 percent of urban Chinese in a China Youth Daily survey released in June said they had no place to exercise. The United States has 16 times more space per person devoted to fitness than China.

Hard to change

Although China's budget for elite, competition-level sports is a state secret, there's a quiet debate going on in academia over the relative merit of funneling so much money into national glorification. Scholars say they're keeping quiet, at least until after the Olympics, given how much government "face" is tied to winning gold and pulling off a successful show. "It's very controversial," said one.

Some say China's East German-style sports system - in which children as young as 5 are streamed into relentless, year-round training as wards of the state - is such a fundamental part of Communist Party architecture and so racked with vested interests that it won't be transformed until the state is.

"If you look at Cuba, Russia, North Korea, Eastern Europe, these programs don't change until the political system does," said Luciano Barra, former head of Italy's Olympic Committee. "I don't think it will happen until democracy comes."

Decades ago, Chairman Mao Zedong famously urged Chinese to strengthen their bodies before civilizing their minds. Nowadays, a hypercharged economy and more Western lifestyle has taken its toll on fitness, with pushy mothers viewing skeptically anything that keeps their darlings from cracking the books in a society of one-child families.

There's also the cultural fear that "little emperors" will injure themselves or feel uncomfortable, experts add. "Chinese kids eat too much and too well, and after meals they might be too full to exercise," Vice Minister Feng Jianzhong said at a news conference late last month.Yet there can be unforeseen consequences to a life of limited leisure. Fear of drowning keeps many parents from having their youngsters learn to swim. But as a result, drowning, by some measures, is the No. 1 cause of accidental juvenile death.

'What's in it for me?'

Young Chinese are most likely to break a sweat in junior high school when they're required to pass a national fitness exam. Students train for months doing push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups, running and long-jumping. All too often after the test, however, many return to their exercise-free regimen.

Although change is afoot in some urban areas, relatively few children are encouraged to enjoy sports for their own sake, fitness experts said. Also working against more broad-based participation is a deeply entrenched and, by some accounts, mediocre sports bureaucracy that has changed relatively little since Mao's day, critics said.

"All too often the proverbial question among sports officials is, 'What's in it for me?'" said Tom McCarthy, Beijing-based chief executive of Beijing International Group, who has helped develop basketball, baseball and tennis in China for 15 years. "There's a lot of old-timers in there. I think the broom may come out after the Olympics."


Another deterrent has been the combination of China's huge population, greedy cadres and developers who appropriate limited park space for luxury condos and office towers. A few years ago, local Communist Party officials converted the sports grounds of Chenghua School into luxury housing for themselves, the Nanjing Daily reported. In Zizhong No. 1 Middle School in Sichuan province's Neijiang city, fitness classes were cut in half after much of the playground was used to build a mall, according to the China Education Daily.

About 85 percent of sports facilities are reserved for elite athletes, according to a 2005 study. And even where there is space for the hoi polloi, it's often locked or carries entry fees. The result is that Chinese often appropriate stretches of city sidewalk to square dance, do martial arts or stretch.


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