There cannot be a bigger fish out of water in China right now than Wang Jian Jiahe: quite literally. The 18 year-old swimming prodigy recently won the preliminary rounds of the 1,500-metre freestyle in the National Swimming Championships, breaking the Asian record in the process.
But that wasn’t enough to secure her a place in the final. Instead of focusing on breaking the world record, Wang was forced to sit it out because she can’t run fast enough. Yes, you read that correctly. Selection wasn’t determined by how well the swimmers had done in the preceding heats, but how they’d performed in a new government-sanctioned fitness test.
The General Administration of Sport (GAS) introduced a one-size-fits all fitness test in February. A People’s Daily editorial explained that it was necessary because “physical fitness is a significant shortcoming especially among Chinese athletes who aren’t competing at world-class levels”.
But the test wasn’t designed to align with the training requirements of individual sports. Instead, everyone has to take part in long races and sprints, in addition to proving their strength in vertical jumps and push-ups. To secure a place in a national championship final, those with best times from the heats only qualify if they rank in the top eight in the fitness test as well.
The government also has a very wide definition of what classifies as a sport. This means that even chess and eSports players have to take part as well.
The test has, unsurprisingly, up-ended the sports community and drawn wall-to-wall derision on social media.
Swimmers are being made to run even though this causes stiff ankles and heavy bones in a sport which benefits from flexible joints and lighter bones. Only five out of eight potential pole-vaulters took part in their national final because the other three hadn’t scored highly enough in the test. Prospective competitors in the national table tennis championships were even fined for turning up late for training, despite the fitness test being the cause of the delay.
“If it goes on like this, there’ll be no point looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics,” one social media commentator said. “All that hard work the athletes have put in, over so many years. It’s being reduced to nothing.”
“Staff at the GAS should be forced to take their own test,” another commented. “The bottom 20% should be sacked.” So far, the government remains unmoved. The People’s Daily says sports bosses remains committed to reform, but understands that this needs to ‘resonate with the nation’. Reverting to a well-worn Chinese phrase, it says the process has entered a phase where it’s necessary “to chew hard bones” (which is to say, face difficult choices, or endure hardships).
What the current strategy reflects are some of the hallmarks of the mass exercise routines that many school children and factory workers still perform in unison every morning. These date back to 1951 and the era of Chairman Mao – a leader who equated physical education with ideological discipline. Mao hoped that military-style public exercise would strengthen the country’s moral and physical backbone, helping it to overcome its “century of humiliation”. There are still echoes of this in the country’s attitude towards competing at the Olympics, which the new fitness test is a precursor to.
Ma Liang, professor of Public Administration at Renmin University, believes the government has got it all wrong. In a lengthy article, he described the new policy as akin to “drinking poison to quench thirst,” or “draining the pond to see the fish”.
He suggests the country take ancient history as its guide. “We should draw inspiration from the proverb about the Eight Immortals crossing the sea,” he concluded. “Each accomplishes it by displaying his or her special powers.” The moral is clear. It doesn’t matter what training an athlete undertakes as long as it’s legal, is suitable for the sport and it helps them to win.
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.