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September 3, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright September 3, 2008 Eric Setzekorn. Used by permission.


With the Olympics already more than a week in the past, life in Beijing is slowly returning to normal. The Chinese government appears to have achieved what it wanted, producing an overwhelming show to awe foreign and domestic audiences and a clutch of gold medal winners to gloat over. The results for two of the more hidden goals of the games look mixed: promoting athletics for personal health along with national pride and using the Olympics to educate a new generation of urban Chinese as confident global citizens. And a negative legacy from 2008 looks to be the expansion of governmental authority in cases of government-proclaimed necessity.

An important legacy of the Olympics was supposed to be its promotion of athletics in Chinese life, but an unintended consequence of China’s growing sports mania is the increasing individualism of sports stars. Promotion of sports and physical activity as a way to regenerate the vitality and health of the Chinese people has been a popular idea for over a century and was heavily promoted during the Maoist period. The need to promote sustainable interest in sports as part of the average lifestyle has become more urgent as a newly affluent urban class is changes their diets to include less healthy food as their wealth increases. Soaring obesity rates among children in coastal regions are not only due to diet but also lifestyle factors such as widespread on-line gaming and near universal access to television, which also inhibits development of peer relationships.

While China’s gold medal count was high in 2008, the overwhelming number of China’s gold medals have come in solo events that emphasize technique and skill rather than strenuous cardiovascular exertion. Commercially viable sports such as soccer and basketball, which have huge numbers of Chinese fans and are available to the poor in a way platform diving or skeet shooting is not, performed extremely poorly in spite of having several world-class players. A generation of Chinese girls now dream of gymnastic glory when a more sustainable and positive habit would be the promotion of soccer, volleyball and basketball for exercise and socialization.