Children deserve a sporting chance

Updated: 2013-03-13 07:12

By Tang Zhe and Hu Haiyan (China Daily)

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 Children deserve a sporting chance

Children find an outlet for their energy at a school in Shanghai. An Lingjun / for China Daily


Ensuring physical fitness for the young must be a priority, report Tang Zhe and Hu Haiyan in Beijing.

In recent years, China has demonstrated its position as one of the world's most competitive sporting powerhouses. The improvement has been signaled through success at the Olympic Games, highlighted by China's highest gold medal tally of 51 at Beijing 2008 and 38 at London 2012. However, in contrast with the nation's prowess in athletics, the overall fitness of the general public, and children in particular, has become a cause for concern.

The problem is twofold: Most of the participants of a nationwide program to promote fitness are retirees with no academic or work pressures to contend with; and the emphasis on academic excellence, coupled with the rigors of the gaokao, the nation's university entrance exam, mean that it's not unusual for schools to replace physical education classes with extra tuition or examinations.

The issue, which has attracted wide public attention, has been a hot topic at the annual sessions of national legislative and political advisory bodies.

Members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, the country's top advisory body, have suggested a range of measures.

One suggestion is that physical education should be listed as a part of the gaokao, an initiative that could be backed by policies and regulations to ensure the quality of sporting education.

The physical condition of university students has been declining for some time, according to an investigation by the Ministry of Education and General Administration of Sport in 2010, which covered 31 provinces and regions and 995 schools. The probe found that the cardiopulmonary functions of undergraduates had fallen by 10 percent since 1985, according to People's Daily.

Meanwhile, although the overall level of fitness of elementary- and middle-school students has shown signs of improvement after a 25-year decline, conditions such as obesity and myopia continue to increase within the target groups. Forty percent of elementary school students are myopic, a rise of 9 percent from 2005, while more than 80 percent of college students have the condition, which many observers attribute to overzealous attention to schoolwork and computer screens.

The deterioration in fitness levels has been highlighted by a number of tragically young deaths. In November, Chen Jie, a 21-year-old student, died of cardiac arrest as he finished the Guangzhou Marathon. A few days later, a sophomore at Shanghai Donghua University died at the finishing line of a 1-km physical test, and in December, a student at Shanghai Sanda University died after fainting during a basketball class.

"The deterioration in the physical constitution of college students has been ongoing for a long time," said Liu Bo, head of the sports department at Tsinghua University.

"If students were to begin running at elementary school and maintained the habit until university age, there would be far less chance of accidents such as these occurring," he said. "It is impossible to rapidly improve the cardiopulmonary functions of students who have lacked exercise since childhood when they enter university, so there is now a risk that things will go wrong when these students undertake strenuous exercise."

Academic performance

The increasing pressure to gain entry to the best higher education institutions is seen as one of the dominant factors leading to a lack of exercise among students.

The concept of academic excellence is drummed into Chinese children. The country's huge student population means that competition for places at the best universities is fierce. Only the very best performers in the gaokao stand a chance of being selected by the most prestigious colleges and enjoying the benefits that accrue from attending an elite establishment, such as easier access to the best jobs.

This has led to physical education playing second fiddle to academic pursuits, a common occurrence in elementary and high schools. "The increasing pressure on students to attend the very best colleges is the major reason," said Zhong Binglin, a member of the CPPCC National Committee and president of the Chinese Society of Education.

"When I was a school student, there was less pressure academically and society as a whole valued a more-rounded development mode for students, including their physical condition. But now the standards by which we judge schools and students have changed, becoming more score-oriented and leading students and teachers to spend more time improving examination results," he said.

A number of members of the CPPCC National Committee have called for reform of the gaokao selection criteria at the body's ongoing session.

Liu Changming, president of Beijing No 4 Middle School, one of the capital's best-rated schools, urged China to learn from the education systems in the United States and Japan, where sports are an integral part of the curriculum from elementary school through to college.

"Japanese schools invest great efforts in improving the physical condition of their students. We should learn from them and adopt measures, such as setting up extracurricular sports clubs of various kinds to attract students, and also establish criteria by which we can judge students and schools that are not simply oriented toward exam results," said Liu.

Li Yuanyuan, president of Jilin University, suggested that physical education should be included as part of the university entrance examination.

"Basic education is always geared in the direction of the national examination, which has led to physical education being neglected most of the time," he said. "But now we are exploring reforms of the examination to make it more reasonable, scientific and beneficial to raise the profile of physical education in basic education."

Facilities, faculties, quality

In addition to the neglect of sports classes, a shortage of facilities and trained physical education teachers, especially in rural and under-developed areas, has further exacerbated the problem.

China has a shortfall of 300,000 physical education teachers in its elementary and high schools. Some rural schools don't employ professionally trained sports teachers, relying instead on teachers of other subjects to take care of physical education, which inevitably affects the quality of the activities on offer.

Take Wuzhong, a city in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, as an example; the city's schools have 1,260 physical education faculties which employ 559 part-time staff, but still has 444 vacant posts, according to a report by China Sports Daily in June.

"The number of graduates in the field is very limited each year and most of them are reluctant to work at schools in the countryside," Niu Fumin, education head of Yanchi county in Wuzhong told the paper. "We had four vacant posts for sports teachers in 2010, but only two candidates applied and we had no other choices."

The education authorities aim to fill the gap within three years via a number of measures, including training retired athletes to assume control of instruction.

"The rural areas lack the funds to attract talent and build the facilities. Some of them even don't have school buildings, let alone a sports ground," said Zhong. "There is still a long way to go to make education really equitable across the nation, especially in terms of bridging the gap in providing the rural areas with sufficient capital."

Meanwhile, the quality of most school sports is far from desirable, according to Duan Shijie, deputy director of the General Administration of Sport.

"Although most of the schools have physical education classes, the effects are not satisfactory," he said. "It is common for the content of the classes to vary from the syllabus - some (schools) ignore parts of the course, while others just let the students play among themselves.

"The main reason is that society hasn't realized the importance of exercise to young people, and we also lack the rules (to regulate schools)," he said.

Yang Hua, president of Beijing Sport University, said policies and rules should be implemented to ensure the quality of physical education classes.

"The school regulations and the national syllabus should attach the same importance to sports as they do to academic courses," said Yang. He suggested that the authorities should specify exactly what proportion of the education budget should be spent on sporting facilities and the construction of venues. He also urged that physical education classes and extracurricular activities should be well organized and designed.

"Schools must enable students to exercise their bodies and hone their willpower through a well-organized curriculum en route to improving the quality of the classes. If not, the classes will go to waste and the students will be left with a poor understanding of the importance of sports," Yang said.

Team players?

Improving the physical fitness of students and promoting sporting activity in schools could help to expand the talent pool for athletics and resolve a growing dichotomy in China's sporting life.

While the country has achieved great success in individual events, there has been a dramatic decline in the results and reserves in team sports, including soccer, basketball and volleyball.

To increase the number of soccer players, the Chinese Football Association has sought cooperation with the education authorities to promote the sport in schools.

Meanwhile, the retired basketball star Yao Ming, who now serves as a member of the CPPCC National Committee, suggested during the annual session that sports and education should be combined further and proposed the foundation of school basketball leagues.

"Physical education should be part of general education, and basketball, which was born on campuses, should return to the schoolyard," said the 32-year-old former Houston Rockets center. "That combination would enable young students to improve their physical health and allow the development of well-educated athletes."

Yao's view was echoed by Yang Liguo, an official at the Ministry of Education, who works in school sports.

"School leagues should be a method of molding the morality and personalities of the participants and play a part in boosting the development of the country's basketball talent to ensure the sport's long-term and sustainable development," he said.

The Ministry of Education's Students Athletic Association has signed an agreement with the US National Collegiate Athletic Association. It aims to promote the development of school basketball leagues in China throughout the education system via a number of exchange programs between the two countries, according to Yang.

Raising awareness

In an effort to increase the attention paid to physical education, the Ministry of Education issued a document in October that proposed the formation of a mechanism for sustainable development and a scientific evaluation system for school sports by the end of 2015. It also urged local sports authorities and schools to conduct annual tests to monitor students' physical well-being.

That has resulted in some establishments paying greater attention to children's overall fitness levels, rather than mere academic performance.

In addition to students undertaking a daily hour of outdoor exercise, Shanghai Jincai High School boasts first-class facilities and Li Guojun, a retired national volleyball player, is now head coach of the school's volleyball club. The school requires students to pick at least one sport and join a club to participate regularly throughout their lives.

"The reason for the decline in student fitness levels is simply that they lack exercise, and so we need to encourage an interest in sports," said Li. "Providing a wider range of choices than just basic running would trigger greater participation and eventually help students to become fitter."

Meanwhile, 13 monitoring centers will be set up in Shanghai this year to keep a close eye on students' physical fitness, according to Yin Jie, vice-director of the Shanghai Education Committee.

Health beats exam results

Ye Qing, the mother of a grade-two student at Nanjing Youfu West Street Primary School, believes that a healthy body is more important than good exam results.

Her son, Zhang Xinye, practices table tennis for 45 minutes every afternoon at his school, with professional guidance provided by a local school that specializes in sports studies.

"We don't care how many full marks he achieves in the exams, we care if his body grows healthily, as it is supposed to," said Ye. "I've seen a lot of kids hampered by health problems such as obesity and myopia at a young age. We don't want our only child to be a fat little boy.

"Making sure he has enough time to play whatever sports he enjoys is more important at his age," she said.

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Sun Xiaochen and Gao Qihui contributed to this story.