The country that has overwhelmed the Olympics since the last decade is looking at an entire current and future generation of youngsters unfit to run. Four students in their 20s have died over the last month while running distances between one and ten kilometres. Two of them died while running the Guangzhou marathon. The first death took place after a 21-year-old student, who had climbed a mountain a day earlier, collapsed after completing the 10-km lap. (‘Mountain climbing’ is a regular activity here, but it’s nothing like mountaineering. It only involves climbing up unending steps to reach the top of a hill.) He died that night in hospital after a second heart attack. The same day, another 25-year-old runner collapsed after a five-km lap, to die eight days later. The families of both said an ambulance took 20 minutes to arrive.
This was the first time a marathon was being held in Guangzhou (Canton). Of the 20,000 who participated, only 49 were professional runners. As many as 1,517 participants vomited, fainted or developed cramps. The 2004 Beijing marathon had similarly claimed the lives of two runners. Marathons require careful preparation; more shocking were the deaths of two university students in Shanghai. The first, aged 20, died after completing a one-km running test organized by most universities during winter, while the second collapsed while playing basketball. The first death made other universities cancel the running events scheduled for their winter sports meets. A PhD student researching student fitness revealed that between 2002 and 2010, more than 40 students aged over 16 had died during long-distance running events, leading to some universities cancelling them altogether over the last five years.
Physical Education is a prescribed course in universities. To graduate, boys must complete a one-km run and girls an 800-metre run. In 2007, the time limit for the run was changed from three minutes fifty seconds to four-and-a-half minutes. Sports teachers have to give in to students’ pleas and make sure that everyone qualifies; otherwise, more than half the students would fail. Recently, more than 60 per cent freshers failed the basic fitness tests they had to take on admission to the top-ranked Tsinghua University.
The doctor supervising the Guangzhou marathon said that he found older runners in better shape than younger ones. It’s obvious why Chinese students are getting more unfit even as they grow taller — drastic lifestyle changes and phenomenal academic pressure over the last 20 years. Extra weekend classes in English, maths, music are more popular than the ones in sports. In Beijing, some schools don’t allow primary students to leave the class even during recess, in case they hurt themselves playing. A Shanghai student recently sued his school for 50,000 yuan after he fractured his arm while playing leapfrog.
It’s not as if the communist party is oblivious to the situation. A Central provision exists that on days when there are no PT/games classes, an hour has to be set aside for mass sports activity, but hardly any school follows it. Every five years, a fitness survey of students aged seven to 22 is carried out, with predictable results. But solutions would involve a change of lifestyle which is nowhere in the offing. There is one way out though. Given China’s emphasis on ‘reform’ and the market economy, if emphasis on sports is seen as ‘contributing to the economy’, the authorities would push it aggressively.
During the all-important National People’s Congress, a provincial sports director talking about the importance of developing amateur sports among students over specializations by a few in competitive sports said, “As China works hard on its domestic sports industry, mass sports should not be neglected.’’