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China's sporting public still faces hurdles after Olympics
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22:00, August 23, 2008

China's Olympians have racked up a record gold medal haul, but many Chinese find it difficult to transfer their pride in the nation's achievements to their own personal sporting fields.

For 29 year-old Bai Yang, going to the Beijing Workers' Stadium for an Olympic football semifinal was one of his few sporting pleasures.

"I have little time to do sports on weekdays. At weekends, I'm just too tired to get out of bed," said Bai, who lives and works in Beijing.

"Sports is not popular in China," he said. "You can see the elderly doing morning routines in the park, but young people, who need exercise just as much, have no time or energy."

Having roared ahead of every other country with 48 gold medals, China showcased its sporting prowess at the Games, but many still ask whether it has achieved the status of a great power in terms of sport for all.

For many Chinese interested in certain sports or living in less-developed areas, economic challenges and a lack of venues prove to be their biggest hurdles.

"There are only six standard softball courts in a city as large as Beijing," says Sun Bojie, technical operations manager at the Fengtai Olympic softball field and a veteran umpire, complaining the game was failing to catch the public imagination.

Moreover, fees for the available venues are "strikingly high", further dampening interest, says China's softball coach, Wang Lihong. "Even if the Chinese team had won gold this time, softball would still lack attention a month later."

Sports resources are more scarce in the vast rural area and small cities of China.

Just over 8 percent of sports venues are in villages and towns, according to the last national survey conducted by China's General Administration of Sport in 2004.

"China's public sport development is unbalanced generally, especially between rural, underdeveloped areas and urban, prospering regions," Liu Guoyong, deputy head of the GAS sport-for-all department, told a press conference in July.

He acknowledged government-backed resources still fell far short of public demand for sports and that conflict would continue for "quite a long period."

Meanwhile, many note that Chinese gold medallists came from the countryside, a contrast highlighting the disparity between the rapid development in international competition and slow advance in sport for all.

Often cited is Chen Yanqing, the first ever woman to successfully defend an Olympic weightlifting title, whose parents are both fruit growers in a village in east China's Jiangsu Province. Usually, the only sports facility in Chinese villages is the playground or basketball court of a local school.

"An advantage of the Chinese weightlifting team is our system, in which we identify, select and train athletic talents from primary to middle schools and from county level all the way to state level," weightlifting team leader Ma Wenguang said after his team took eight golds in the first seven days of the Games.

This system has helped athletes in sports such as weightlifting, diving, table tennis and shooting, and enabled Chinese athletes to earn 17more golds than their closest followers, the United States, just a day before the Games end.

The gold haul showed the current state-backed athletic sports system was effective to a certain degree, said Wei Jizhong, former Chinese Olympic Committee general-secretary, on Thursday.

The system was not unique to China, but common practice in different forms, citing the U.S. government's taxing of Olympic sponsors to fund the Olympic training center.

The Chinese government invested 270 million yuan (38.6 million U.S. dollars) in public sports in 2005, while 480 million yuan went to elite sports, the latest available official figures show.

Such a proportion was based on China's reality and path of development, according to GAS deputy head Feng Jianzhong.

In the past 30 years, the authorities have focused on building the economy and lifting millions out of poverty. The economic conditions made a difference to public attitudes to sports, says Jiang Chongmin, chief of the GAS sport-for-all research center.

"How can you expect someone to be in the mood for sports when he can't even feed himself?" asks Jiang.

The flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China, the People's Daily, on Friday called on the country to be "clear-minded" with its dominance of the gold medal stakes.

"Our sports facilities are still far from meeting the growing needs of the public, while physical education tends to be neglected in schooling," said a commentary in the paper.

Every 10,000 Chinese have access to 6.58 sports venues, with a per capita venue area of 1.03 square meters, far below the levels of more than 200 venues per 10,000 people and about 20 square meters per capita in countries like Japan, according to the GAS survey.

Things will hopefully pick up as the leadership shifts its focus to providing for rural populations and developing public facilities, one of the benefits of the Olympics, officials say.

The government plans to invest more than 2.6 billion yuan in 87,000 sport and fitness programs for its 800 million farmers by the end of this year, says Feng.

"One of China's goals in the Games is to use the athletes' inspiring performances as models for the public pursuit of sports and to promote sport for all," he says.

For Zheng Lingyun, all the golds played a role in this aim.

"I'm delighted to see China get so many gold medals," says Zheng, who works at a software company in Shanghai and swims regularly at a local club, which has about 300 members, the largest in the city of 16 million people.

"There has been an obvious jump in the club's business after Michael Phelps' miraculous eight wins," says Zheng. "I heard swimsuit sellers had a gold rush, too."

Source: Xinhua

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