While most ordinary Chinese are more concerned about Yao Ming's injury and comeback than the state of their own fitness, authorities are hoping to persuade more people to give exercise a sporting chance.
With the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games fast approaching, senior officials of China's governing body of sport admit that there is a misbalance between interest in sport and participation, a crucial part of the Olympic spirit.
"Chinese people still lack awareness of how to get fit by getting involved in different sports," said Feng Jianzhong, deputy director of the State General Administration of Sport (SGAS).
"The media coverage is unbalanced. There are so many reports about how Chinese athletes compete for gold medals, but not so much exposure for community sports activities. The participation of all the people is a significant part of preparing to host a successful Olympic Games. We have to take the chance to show how Chinese athletes have reached a global level, as well as show how passionate ordinary people are about fitness."
Ten years ago, the government issued a document called "An Outline of the National Fitness Program," which was a milestone in the history of mass sports. Also 10 years ago the government promulgated the Law on Physical Culture and Sports, which consolidated and upgraded the legal status of the national fitness undertaking.
By enhancing health awareness and providing convenient places to exercise, it has helped people improve their fitness level.
Reports say that thanks in part to the program, China's average life expectancy has risen to 71.8 years, and about 37 percent of people regularly participate in sports activities. The country has also invested heavily in building sports facilities.
The sports participation rate does not stack up well against developed countries, where it can often reach 80 or 90 percent.
In the last year before the 2008 extravaganza officials are urging local governments to organize activities to stir interest in sport.
According to Liu Peng, Director of the SGAS, more than 60 national and international activities concerning fitness and Olympic promotion will be launched around the country next year.
"By organizing different campaigns targeting people's health, we will help improve their consciousness and ensure the promotion of the Olympic spirit," said Liu.
"A People's Olympics is a core part of the Beijing Olympic concept. We should make extra efforts to have more and more people take part in the scheduled activities."
Early in 2006, China began to organize a series of campaigns with a theme of "National Fitness and Move with the Olympics," which set a solid base for a further spread of the 2007 program.
"We have done a lot of work to popularize community sports and raise awareness in 2006. We are also trying to combine the Olympic spirit with national fitness. In 2007, we will continue the concept of the Olympics being closely linked to all activities."
Mass sports in China
Apart from the inspiration of the Olympics, emerging health problems are also encouraging more people to exercise.
According to a national survey last September, more men are obese and an increasing number of students have poor eyesight.
About one in 10 (9.3 percent) male adults between 20 and 59 suffer from obesity, up 22 percent from 2000 when the country released its first National Physical Fitness Report.
In the 40-59 age group, the rate stands at 11.7 percent.
For male adults, 33.2 percent are overweight, up 1.3 percent.
In contrast, women in the same age bracket have seen little change from 2000.
The obesity rate among students has also increased by at least 1 percent, while strength and stamina are on the decline, according to the report.
The report also indicates that urban Chinese are more physically fit than people in rural areas. Geographically speaking, residents of Shanghai, Jiangsu, Shandong, Guangxi and Beijing have the highest fitness levels, while those in Xinjiang, Guizhou, Qinghai and Tibet have the lowest.
Authorities are acting to deal with the lack of sporting facilities in rural areas.
The country aims to ensure each village has one cement-paved basketball court equipped with a pair of standard hoops and two outdoor ping pong tables.
The SGAS has promised to launch a number of important new projects next year.
"We will put the priority on the implementation of major projects like 'Billions of People Fitness Campaign,' 'National Fitness Week,' 'Community Action,' and the 'Rural Residents' Fitness Project,"' Liu said.
Apart from increasing investment in sports facilities, China also plans to introduce some traditional sports to make 2007 more interesting.
These include a wide range of activities, deeply rooted in the nation's culture, that encourage people to exercise to improve their health.
Apart from the fun element, people can enjoy the same benefits as other more demanding sports, officials said.
The list includes Taiqi, a Chinese martial art with a history dating back thousands of years, roller-skating, dragon boat racing, kicking shuttlecocks, tug-of-war and yangko dancing, a traditional street activity in Northeast China
"Competitive sports like soccer and basketball are just a small part of the series of activities. We have asked local associations to organize different sports according to local culture and tradition," said Liu.
"I hope all people can enjoy the fun of sport and have a healthy body."
(China Daily February 16, 2007)