Lopsided education system hinders development of sports talents

Coach Zhao Hanhua, who was the onetime coach of Chinese Olympic gold medal hopeful Cheng Fei, trains young children in various gymnastics disciplines at the Wuhan Institute of Physical Education. Photo: Ryan Pyle 
 
Chinese swimmer Sun Yang (孙杨) won gold in the men’s 200m freestyle on Monday night, becoming the first athlete in China to win Olympic gold in swimming two times in a row. After sports stars like Li Na (李娜), Yao Ming (姚明) and Lin Dan (林丹), he is on track to become a star in China, where winning an Olympic gold used to be regarded as winning honor for the motherland. 
 
It is easy to tell from public opinion expressed through social media that Chinese people are not as much into golds and honors as they used to be in the previous Olympic Games. They are changing perceptions about participating in the world-class sports activities. 
 
When no Chinese player won a gold on the first day of Rio Games, most netizens took it easy and left messages to encourage those athletes who could not win the medals they were expected to win. “We don’t need a medal to convince ourselves that we’re strong anymore,” wrote one netizen, which represented the general sentiment. While in the past, it was not unusual to witness message boards swept by evil curses if a national player failed to live up to the expectations. 
 
The point is, people may have finally become fed up with the old-fashioned idea of connecting Olympic with fighting for your motherland, but the system that cultivated sports players just for honoring the country remains unchanged. 
 
Except for a dozen household names like Liu Xiang, Li Na, Yao Ming, and Li Ning who created China’s gymnastic wonders in the 1980s, most Olympic players from China just retired and left the sports they had devoted their prime life period quietly. Some of the Olympic gold winners in China who failed to gain reputation are reportedly leading miserable lives. 
 
Whenever there was news about former medalist living in poverty, the public wondered how that could be possible. How it is that people winning in fierce sports events could fail to feed themselves in life? The system of physical education in China may be one major cause to blame. 
 
Actually, our athlete cultivation mechanism has helped many brilliant players compete successfully in top competitions like Olympics, while the negative side of the system is also becoming apparent, which has affected the sustainable development of competitive sports. 
 
China has long separated general education and athletic training, designating different agencies to manage the two tasks. Educational departments don’t need to worry too much about physical training while physical training organizations are not responsible for professional athletes’ academic performance.  
Our country still uses the old athletic training mode imported from the former Soviet Union, recruiting children who would like to become professional athletes and train them in nationally owned special boarding schools. If a school has become successful in cultivating talents into the national sports teams, then the school will be designated as an Olympic preparatory institution. 
 
Training in seclusion and abandoning academic learning are usually characteristic of the institutions providing seeded players. Negligence to academic studies usually puts players at a disadvantage in finding a suitable job in another field outside sports. Meanwhile, artificially alienating the seeded players from society to train them in seclusion can lead to social anxiety disorders. And this also makes life difficult for them after retirement from sports. 
 
On the other hand, there are few sports teams in normal primary and middle schools and there is no systematic sports training in such schools. Because of that, it is difficult to identify sporting talents in non-sports schools in China. 
 
Based on official data, in 2010, there are 99.4 million primary students and 99.19 million middle school students. Among them, only 2.6 million students (0.37 million in sports schools and 2.25 million in normal schools) have access to systematic physical training, accounting for just 1.35% of the total. For common schools, the focus is the entrance exam for university and not physical training, which limits the recruitment base for athletes.  
 
Generally speaking, a professional athlete develops after eight to 10 years’ systematic training, and their prime performance time comes at around 20. The best period to train athlete should be in primary and middle school, while academic pressures have made most Chinese kids miss the golden time to undertake physical education.  
 
Lack of commercialization is another reason for Chinese athletes’ narrowed path. Although a few sports have gained commercialization and sponsorship, most professional athletes are poorly paid, and forced to retire from sports and make a living by other means. The low level of commercial activities also affects physical education in common schools. With limited sponsorship, many schools in China could not even afford playgrounds and equipment to open physical education classes. 

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