BEIJING — China may be racking up medals at the Olympics in London and it may have celebrated National Fitness Day on Aug. 8, yet it’s anything but a nation of athletes.
Even though the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with their muscular opening ceremony and new records, put China at the center of the sporting map, they have failed to popularize sports among the Chinese. Some say they’ve even had the opposite effect.
“The culture created around the Olympics is that sports is something for the elite: if you can’t win medals, you have no interest,” Paul French, a co-author of “Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation,” told me. “People live an even more sedentary lifestyle.
The legacy of the Beijing Olympics has been to promote grand performances rather than grassroots change. Special programs pluck promising athletes from mainstream education, channeling them into a vast state sports system inspired by the Soviet Union. Other children are excluded because they are considered to be the wrong height or weight.
In some schools, meanwhile, physical education classes — generally sessions of mass jumping and stretching — are cut to make more time for study. Given China’s fiercely competitive education system, parents often encourage their children to do homework instead of playing outside.
With a population of 1.3 billion, China does contain its fair share of exercise fanatics. Throughout the country, the elderly practice tai chi or use exercise machines in city parks. On sunny weekends in Beijing, urbanites flock to Olympic Forest Park, which was built for the 2008 Games, to enjoy the picturesque running routes. Some jog, often frustrated by the many more who use the track for leisurely strolls.
Yet around one-third of China’s population, or some 430 million people, are obese or overweight, according to some estimates. French’s book claims that by 2015 as many as 200 million Chinese could be morbidly obese. The numbers for China are growing faster than those for any other emerging nation apart from Mexico. French warns that a “tsunami of lifestyle diseases” is about to hit the Chinese health system.
When Wang Lei made history — first in 2008, after hiking the North and South Poles, and then in 2010, after becoming the first Chinese woman to scale the treacherous Seven Summits, the highest peaks on the seven continents — her parents were not pleased. They were disappointed that Lei, 41, had given up a potentially lucrative career in finance in America to pursue her dream.
Today, Wang organizes events to promote athletics in Beijing. She wants to encourage sports for sports’ sake — and remove its association with national glory. “Athletes are basically components in a machine,” Wang told me last week. “The whole purpose of their existence is to get a gold medal.”
The sports commentator Huang Jianxiang also blames the state sports system for stunting grassroots efforts. He argues that the tactical funding of minority sports for a few — which is more likely to win medals — comes at the cost of encouraging team sports for everyone.
At the closing ceremony for the 2012 Games this weekend, China will surely be flashing gold. (As of Thursday evening, it ranked second both in gold medals and the total tally.)
The British coach who has been training China’s Olympic swimmers has a simple explanation for their record-breaking performances: they have wanted “not sport for all, but gold medals.” Small wonder that while they have made history in London, many ordinary people in China still cannot swim.