Nation putting its best sporting foot forward

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Runners take part in an international crosscountry race in Kelamayi, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, on June 29. CHEN XIAOWEI/XINHUA

The sweltering summer heat didn't stop runners from taking to the track at Olympic Forest Park in north Beijing on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the park features a 10-kilometer track that wends part of its way alongside a lake. It has become highly popular with runners since China began promoting physical fitness among the population in the post-Games era.

Kang Xu, a running enthusiast who has completed more than 20 marathons, said spending time at the park has become his weekend routine.

"If I miss a running session on Saturday I feel uncomfortable and even guilty the next day," said Kang, editor of Front Runner, a popular long-distance running magazine.

The enthusiasm for running among people in urban areas underlines the country's ever-increasing passion for fitness. This has been inspired by the central government's call to promote mass participation in exercise while boosting the sports industry to build a healthier nation by 2030.

President Xi Jinping, while meeting with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach in Beijing in January, said the overall fitness level of the Chinese people has improved significantly over the past 70 years. He also stressed that the scale of public sports participation represents a country's move toward modernization.

In his report at the opening session of the Communist Party of China's 19th National Congress on Oct 18, 2017, Xi urged the country's sports sector to extensively promote mass fitness activities to accelerate development of a strong sporting nation.

Echoing Xi's call, people from all walks of life have embraced a range of sports exercises to mark the 11th National Fitness Day, which has been held on Aug 8 annually since 2009 to commemorate the opening of the 2008 Olympics.

As part of this year's Fitness Day campaign, the General Administration of Sport of China organized more than 3,000 mass activities and grassroots sporting contests at major public venues, parks, provincial Olympic sports centers and schools in some 20 municipalities and provinces.

An estimated 90 million participants have signed up to take part, according to GASC's mass fitness department.

A highlight this year is promoting calisthenics - synchronized group exercises performed to music by students on campus - among a wider range of participants at government bodies, affiliated institutions and enterprises.

Some 780 people took part in a display of calisthenics performed to music and guidance from radio broadcasts in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, on Saturday, showcasing the accessibility and health benefits of the routines.

By expanding this from campuses to public areas, GASC, the country's sports governing body, aims to inspire more adults to adopt active and healthy lifestyles.

"We hope residents in both urban and rural areas will be motivated to become involved in sports. Ideally, everyone will have one or two sports that they participate in on a regular basis, and this will become a habit," said Gou Zhongwen, GASC director.

Marathon mania

The rising popularity of road races in China in recent years is further evidence of the increased participation in sports.

Aided by local governments' ambitions to promote their cities internationally, China has witnessed a boom in road running. A total of 5.83 million people took part in some 1,600 such races nationwide last year, up from just 22 events in 2011, according to the Chinese Athletics Association.

This enthusiasm saw 6,155 runners from China take part in the six major global marathons - Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York - last year, according to the Abbott World Marathon Majors series.

During a visit to Beijing in May, Tim Hadzima, executive director of the series, said: "I am very impressed with the passion that Chinese people have for running. Within our events, we've never seen more Chinese participants."

Meeting the demand to take part in races can be an issue, with online lotteries often used to determine starting lists.

For the Oct 27 Chengdu Marathon in the Sichuan provincial capital, 97,283 runners signed up during a weeklong online registration process in early July for the 30,000 places available.

Shui Tao, director of the Chinese Athletic Association's marathon management office, hopes new races can help meet the soaring demand.

"I don't think it's time to cool the demand," Shui said in June. "All the events we now oversee only cover half the cities in the country. We still have new territory to explore on the nation's running map."

Official backing

In a country where Olympic medals used to be the only gauge of sporting achievement, the increased emphasis on mass wellness and sports participation, highlighted by government guidelines, marks a significant shift, according to observers.

In October 2014, the State Council, China's Cabinet, issued a national development plan for the sports sector, urging the governing body to loosen its grip on the untapped market and allow private enterprises to become involved in organizing and marketing mass sports events.

Before this plan was announced, all sporting events had to be approved by GASC, which charged event organizers administration fees, testing their enthusiasm to help expand events at the grassroots level.

He Wenyi, a researcher at Peking University's Institute of Sports Science, said: "The consistent attention paid by the country's top leaders to the health and well-being of the public has prompted sports authorities and enterprises to shift their focus. Participation now matters more than winning medals."

Free or low-cost sports venues for public use, funded by central financing, have played a key role in making exercise accessible.

According to the Ministry of Finance, the central government offered subsidies totaling 930 million yuan ($132 million) last year to help 1,277 large-scale sports venues nationwide maintain free or low-cost access for public use.

Meanwhile, GASC is working with the finance, urban development and education ministries to ensure that State-owned stadiums, national training bases and school sports facilities are open to the public more often.

Winter thrills

With China preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, ice and snow sports have shaken off their niche status, attracting more participants throughout the year.

On Saturday, the National Winter Sports Administrative Center and local sports bureaus launched the 2019 Mass Ice and Snow Week in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, in an effort to attract more urban fans.

The event, with the theme "Walking into the city and getting close to the public", provides both on-site activities and online promotions.

Ni Huizhong, director of the winter sports administrative center at the event, said: "By bringing this event to the city in summer, we hope more and more Chinese can enjoy winter sports, regardless of where they live. In Northeast China, the abundant snow and ice are an attraction, while in South China, winter sports can develop through leisure activities, training and grassroots competition at indoor venues."

With abundant snowfall in winter and a tradition of amateur participation, 1.5 million people were involved in ice and snow sports in Liaoning last year.

The country plans to build 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts by 2022, up from 334 and 738 respectively in June last year, to lay the foundation for winter sports and recreation to involve 300 million people in the buildup to the Winter Olympics.

Wang Xinyan, 12, from Shenyang, said: "I think it's cool to play hockey. My father is really proud of me." The student, who tends goal, has played the sport for two years.

Her coach Du Chuanyou, a former national team member, attributes hockey's popularity among young players to the fact that it fosters teamwork and discipline while helping children to toughen up.

Du's club, Shenyang Aoshen, has more than 500 registered players, and the number is rising.

Song Kai, director of the Liaoning Municipal Sports Bureau, said, "Taking part in hockey, skating and skiing has become a way of life for the public."

Local authorities will carry out a series of measures, from training instructors to building facilities, to meet the rising demand, Song added.

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