SI Vault
E.M. Swift
August 15, 1988
Sports—both traditional and, like women's bodybuilding, daringly new—are changing in China's cities
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August 15, 1988

Sleeker, Stronger

Sports—both traditional and, like women's bodybuilding, daringly new—are changing in China's cities

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The tournament was held in an air-conditioned 7,500-seat arena, though the air-conditioning was so suspect that many of the spectators at the sold-out final brought handheld fans. Tickets cost five, seven or nine yuan, a sizable sum when one considers that the average monthly salary in Wuhan is 100 yuan. But this was a special occasion. International competition is a rarity in China, and spectator sports of any kind are far from common. For instance, the next weekend in Shanghai, a metropolis of 12 million, there were no sports events that were open to the public.

Wuhan's basketball court was surrounded by advertisements. So was the mezzanine's facade. Photographers were asked to move if they tarried in front of one of the sponsors' signs. Even the name of the tournament—the Zhong-na Aviation Enterprises Group Cup—sounded like something from the PGA Tour. This, too, is the new China.

The crowd was expressive, at times even loud. At the end of the half a gong, not a buzzer, sounded, and almost everyone filed into the corridor behind the stands to smoke. There were no food vendors, and parched spectators jostled for the attention of one woman behind a folding table who was selling warm soft drinks for two yuan each.

When the game resumed, the fans applauded good plays, groaned at near misses and laughed at plays that were out of the ordinary: balls that teetered on the rim before falling in, peculiar bounces, jump balls between mismatched players. And the spectators loved the three-point field goals. Three-point shooting, it turned out, is something of an obsession in China. The basketball hierarchy there, having decided that the Chinese will never have the speed of the Americans or the height of the Eastern Europeans, encourages players to shoot threes at a young age. To that end, in all games between Chinese teams, a team's three-point baskets become four-pointers after it has sunk four long ones. This has produced a nation of gunners.

Virtually every factory of any size has a basketball court, but few have one as fancy as that of the Wuhan steel mill, which employs 140,000 workers. The factory, which has become profitable with the changes in the Chinese economy, put a roof over its court last year at a cost of a million yuan. The floor is now surrounded by 2,700 seats and is used not only by factory workers but also by teams from all over Hubei Province. However, its main function, as we were told by Wang Jiafu, a factory official, was to serve as the home court of Wuhan steel's "representative teams," the mill's semipro men's and women's basketball teams. (Wuhan steel also has a semipro soccer team.)

This is yet another trend in China's cities. Wuhan steel has supported its representative teams for 1½ years at a considerable cost: 500,000 yuan a year for players' salaries and travel expenses. The players are recruited right out of specialized sports schools and spend one third of their time doing factory jobs and two thirds practicing their sports and going to tournaments against other representative teams. They are paid slightly more than the average worker. When asked if the pay differential didn't lead to jealousy among the workers, Wang said, "No problem. The workers feel pride in our factory when the players win." The head of the workers' union concurred, and there seemed to be no reason to doubt them. For one thing, the steel mill's workers are treated well: The indoor basketball court is just one of four large sports facilities the factory owns; among them, they can accommodate just about any sport. Forty-five percent of the workers take active part in one athletic activity or another. Only five years ago that figure was 30%, and the goal five years from now is for 60% to 70% of the workers to be involved in an organized sport. Furthermore the workers' families are allowed to use the factory's athletic facilities when the facilities are not otherwise engaged, and many children have learned to swim in the factory pool.

There's another reason why these better-paid athletes have been accepted by fellow workers. "We have a problem in China," said our interpreter. "Often there's not enough for people to do, since there are two people to do one job." Factory-sponsored sports teams alleviate that to some degree.

Change was also in the air at the #4 Wuhan Middle School. "The experiment here is to see if we can develop elite athletes outside the spare-time sports schools [page 70]," the principal, Xiao Xongzhang, said. "This is the first year of the program, so it's too early to guess the results. But I think it has a bright future. A lot of parents don't want to send their kids to the spare-time schools, where the students don't study."

We had visited a spare-time sports school and listened to educators lament about how the daily four hours of athletic training sapped the students' concentration, so that all the kids wanted to do in class was sleep. At Wuhan #4 Middle School, where academic standards are so high that an astonishing 60% of students qualify for university, athletic training time has been restricted to 2½ hours a day, an hour in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon. The 42 student-athletes, all of whom specialize in track and field, live in their own dorm, attend separate classes from the other 1,500 students, eat specially prepared meals and in just about all other respects are cut off from the rest of the school. They train six days a week, even during vacations. Their reward? "They have a very good future if they study well," said Xiao. "If they are good at sports, points will be added to their examination scores and a university education is likely." As in the U.S., then, athletic skill in China is becoming a ticket to college admission—a considerable reward in a nation in which only 10% of the students who take the university entrance exams are admitted.

No athletes in China enjoy more lavish advantages than those training in water sports at Shanghai's Competitive Sports Institute. Its indoor swimming complex, built in 1983, has two 50-meter pools, 15 diving boards and platforms and seats for 4,099 spectators. The institute's synchronized swimming, water polo, swimming and diving teams can all train there at once. Deep in the bowels of the building is a room that has eight boards from which young divers practice springing into foam-padded pits and two huge trampolines. An adjacent room houses mats for tumbling and mirrored walls for the ballet training given to both divers and synchronized swimmers.

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