Sporting elite

Why Chinese parents want their kids to play niche sports


Not just a sport: it’s a symbol of social status too

The two children of actress Liu Tao are known to be avid golfers. Similarly, Olympic gymnast Yang Wei’s son is learning to drive the ball off the tee. The son of Jiao Zhimin, a former world champ at women’s table tennis, is also receiving golf lessons from a pro.

The reason? “There are several advantages to golf: first, it is challenging, so it helps build the children’s character and determination. Secondly, there are no ‘judges’ in golf so children can learn the importance of honesty,” says Liu Guoliang, the father of Liu Yujie, who took second place in the 2017 US Kids Golf tournament (for the under 7 year-old category).

Tiger parents in China aren’t expecting their kids to be the next Tiger Woods. However, excelling in mainstream sports like running and swimming is not enough for their children to stand out, so more affluent parents are splurging on more costly sporting activities.

Take ice hockey. Zheng Lin, a mother in Beijing, told 21CN Business Herald that she spent this past summer in Canada because she reckons that is the best place to improve her son’s game. Zheng believes that putting the sport on his resume will not only help her son’s application to international schools, but also elevates the family’s social status: since only children from wealthy backgrounds can afford the ‘novelty’ sport.

“Schools know that children who have played ice hockey for many years come from families that are well-to-do. So as long as the academic performance of the child is excellent, it is highly likely that they will be admitted,” Zheng told the newspaper. “And besides, the air in Beijing is so bad I wouldn’t want my child to be playing outdoor sports.”

Ice hockey is a hefty investment from both a time and money perspective. On average, Zheng’s child spends about three hours every week in a group class and another three hours with an instructor for one-on-one lessons. These cost about Rmb40,000 ($6,135) a year. When factoring in the price of the equipment and all the overseas training, a family could easily spend over Rmb150,000 a year on the sport.

With niche sports now becoming a status symbol, other non-mainstream activities like horseriding, rowing and even fencing have seen an uptick in popularity in recent years.

One parent in Shanghai says she spends over Rmb40,000 a year on equestrian lessons for her kids. Another parent even bought a house in Mission Hills, a sprawling golf resort in Shenzhen, just so his son can have access to the club’s 22 golf courses.

To meet the rising demand more businesses now offer high-end sports coaching for young children.

For instance, one soccer school in Beijing works with the football club Inter Milan by hiring professional European instructors to coach Chinese kids. Another commercial soccer camp conducts training in English so kids can improve their language skills while they train. Vango Fencing, a fencing school, became the first sports training institute to go public on the New Third Board earlier this year.

Still, the new obsession with these ‘luxury sports’ comes at a time when teachers around the country are complaining that the physical condition of ‘less elite’ Chinese kids has deteriorated dramatically over the last few years.

It certainly wasn’t for a lack of nutrition. Rising income means that children are now more well-fed than ever. However, the abundance of culinary choices means that child obesity has been on the rise. One recent statistic shows that among Chinese children aged six to 17 years-old, 9.6% are overweight and 6.4% are obese.

One reason is the lack of exercise. More and more children are captivated by their computers or glued to their smartphones all day rather than at play or doing more physically exerting activities.

Experts also say parents and schools have placed too much emphasis on academic performance, which means students spend too much time in the classroom and tutoring classes and not enough time in the gym, says Sohu, a portal.

“They can’t run, they can’t jump. They have no energy. Many are as tall as 1.8 metres and look very strong, but they are so weak they can’t even tie a chicken,” one teacher complains.

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