Host of Olympic Games seems out of shape

Times Staff Writer

When Wu Yifu wants to play basketball with his friends, he has to travel 30 minutes by subway, pay $2, and then wait for 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.

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 people less likely to focus on physical conditioning.

“Chinese parents tend to be concerned only with studying, studying,” said Ma Xiuhua, a fiftysomething mother and manager of a sports equipment store in downtown Beijing. Although China recently beefed up rural sports budgets, a survey last year found that only one in 10 Chinese met the national physical training standard, a 20% 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 pingpong or badminton without a net.

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

“Younger people don’t seem to have time to exercise,” said Shi Xueqin, 80, who has diabetes and high blood pressure. “They’re too worried about making money.”

Not that they necessarily could if they wanted to. About 60% of urban dwellers 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.

Although China’s budget for 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.

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 Tse-tung famously urged the people to strengthen their bodies before civilizing their minds. Nowadays, a hypercharged economy and more Western lifestyle have taken their toll on fitness, with mothers viewing skeptically anything that keeps their darlings from cracking the books.

There’s also the cultural fear in a society of one-child families that “little emperors” will injure themselves or feel uncomfortable, experts say.

“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 recent news conference.

Youths 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 and running. But after the test, many return to their exercise-free regimen.

For proverbial 90-pound weaklings, some “tea money” can help. “Some classmates gave the teacher $15-$30 or a carton of cigarettes to pass,” said Chen Xu, 27, a business reporter.

“I admit that cheating exists,” said Mao Zhenming, a Beijing Sports University professor formerly with the Education Ministry. “But we’ve made the exam more transparent and told gym teachers to stay out of sight around exam time” to make gift-giving more difficult, he added.

Students also participate in 10-minute daily “national exercises,” but this generally amounts to little more than stretching. The emphasis is on uniformity and discipline as hundreds of children move their arms in unison in an echo of North Korea’s mass games.

Though change is afoot in some urban areas, relatively few children are encouraged to enjoy sports for their own sake, fitness experts said. Another problem is a deeply entrenched and, some say, mediocre sports bureaucracy that has changed relatively little since Mao’s day.

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

About 85% of sports facilities are reserved for elite athletes, according to a 2005 study. And even where there is space for 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. Schools sometimes use the highway shoulder. Twenty students and a teacher died in 2005 in Shanxi province when a truck hit them during a roadside run.

Even as life expectancy edges up in China, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle problems have escalated.

“I’m a bit overweight,” said Zhang Zongyu, 27, who weighs 240 pounds. “I don’t have time to get in shape. I never really got in the habit because my mother always wanted me to read.”