SHANGHAI (AFP) – China’s former world gymnastics champion Sui Lu, petite but poised, stood amidst a sea of yoga mats and encouraged her students as they bent their torsos towards their outstretched legs.
Sui was four years old when she was selected by China’s State Sports Administration and began training as a top athlete. She became world champion on the balance beam in 2011 and won silver at the London Olympics the following year.
But the students she taught in the bright, airy room of a Shanghai university had no such ambitions—Sui’s class was about basic physical fitness.
The lessons, taught by former elite athletes, are part of a recent push by the government to allocate more time for youth fitness in the world’s most populous country, as it hopes to capitalize on increased enthusiasm for the sport ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“People used to not like sports. They were under pressure to study and had no time for exercise. But now everyone values sports,” Sui told AFP after guiding her students through more stretching and ballet exercises.
The government’s new emphasis on physical activity — school assignments have been reduced and targets such as a minimum of two hours of physical activity a day have been introduced — has led to a scramble to find qualified teachers.
That has opened up new career opportunities for Sui and other ex-athletes in a previously limited system.
“It’s not like it used to be when everyone thought professional athletes could only teach other professionals after they retired,” Sui said.
She sees her mission not in creating elite or even intermediate athletes, but in breaking the Chinese perception that sport is only for elite athletes and a waste of time for everyone else.
The fitness overhaul is part of a broader campaign by the Communist Party to promote healthier lifestyles, which includes cracking down on industries it sees as harmful distractions, like cosmetic surgery and video games.
Concerns have risen over the education system, which is geared towards rote learning, pressure tests and extra after-school cramming from private tutoring companies, as concerned parents urge their children to keep up.
The school situation has been blamed for contributing to obesity, myopia and growing despair among adolescents about a society that many young people say they increasingly view as a stressful rat race at a dead end.
Jiang Yujing was a member of China’s winning squad at the 2010 World Junior Badminton Championships and now teaches the sport in a combined elementary and junior high school in Shanghai.
She said parents realize that “college isn’t the only way” to succeed.
“It’s not like it used to be. Parents these days wouldn’t insist on home tutoring on weekends. Rather, they hope to follow their child’s natural instincts and relieve their stress through exercise,” she said.
One of her students, fourth grader Song Xuanchun, said he and his classmates enjoyed the change in focus.
“Most of my class is in better shape. Many of my classmates used to get nosebleeds or get sick a lot, but not anymore,” he said.
Mother-of-two Zhu Jing used to insist that her own fourth grader study nonstop during her free time.
But she said she’s begun to realize that “if they study every day … their interest or enthusiasm for learning will diminish because they’ll think that no matter how hard they work, they’re going to have endless homework anyway.”
Zhu said the reduced study load this school year means more time for activities like badminton or cycling, often as a family — as well as “more natural light.”
But some parents have expressed concern on Chinese blogs, speculating that the sport drive could eventually fizzle out, leaving their children academically behind.
Posts suggest many parents are still secretly pushing their kids to study as much as before.
For now, the fitness drive shows no sign of slowing down — some Chinese provinces are even tweaking high school and university entrance test requirements to increase the emphasis on athletic achievement.
Deputy director of a combined elementary and middle school in Shanghai, Zhang Meng, said his institution already has nearly 20 physical education teachers and plans to add more
The school recently installed new lighting at its outdoor sports facilities to allow students to train well into the evening, in response to popular demand.