Several records at an annual middle school track and field meet in northeastern China have remained unbroken for up to 40 years, state news agency Xinhua revealed last week.
The report cited statistics from the Children’s Sports and Artistic Development Center in an unnamed provincial capital, where some of the longest-running records — for the women’s 800-meter race, the women’s 100-meter dash, and the men’s 110-meter hurdles — were set in 1977, 1979, and 1981, respectively.
“Now, the level of competition at a citywide meet is equivalent to that of a meet held by a single school in the past,” the center’s director was quoted as saying. “Students’ sports performance just keeps deteriorating.”
Sixth Tone’s calls to a children’s sports and artistic development center in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province — the only such institute that fits Xinhua’s description — went unanswered.
Last month in the southern part of the country, Guangzhou’s education bureau announced the results of a survey on the health of the city’s primary and middle school students. It found that only 2.6 percent of children were rated “excellent” according to national health standards, and that 16.2 percent did not qualify as “healthy.” Notably, 20.5 percent failed the vital capacity breathing test, and as many as 49.8 percent of students were identified as nearsighted. Other factors evaluated included sit-ups, pull-ups, jump rope, distance running, and body mass index.
Both the athletic records in Northeast China and the survey results in Guangdong province are indicative of a general trend of declining health and athletic aptitude among Chinese teens, said Chen Ziqiu, a physical education instructor at a public middle school in Shanghai. “Records remaining unbroken for decades is not unique to the northeast — it’s the same here,” she told Sixth Tone. “Students’ health and sporting ability have long been deteriorating, and this has everything to do with parents’ indifference to sports.”
Wang Zongping, director of the Motility Quotient Research Center at Nanjing University of Science and Technology, said school sports records became more difficult to break after the 1980s. “This is basically consistent with the timing of when our country’s students’ general health started to decline,” he told China Youth Daily, without elaborating as to why this period was significant.
Every five years since 1985, China’s Ministry of Education has conducted a nationwide student fitness survey. From 1985 to 2005, students’ athletic endurance steadily declined, as did the number of pull-ups and sit-ups they were able to do. Around 2013, however, this trend began to level off, as policymakers became aware of the problem and began implementing more rigorous physical fitness requirements in schools.
Chen, the physical education teacher, explained that because many parents fill their children’s time outside of school with supplementary academic classes, there’s not much time left over for exercise. “If it weren’t for the 30 points that sports exams contribute to a student’s high school entrance exam in Shanghai, the athletic performance of teenagers here might be even worse.”
Last month, a WeChat public account affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army reported that 56.9 percent of would-be soldiers in a one unnamed city failed to pass their physical exams — a report that state media outlet China Daily was quick to dismiss.
Xi Zhiye, a Shanghai-based tennis coach and father of an 11-year-old girl, told Sixth Tone that he arranges for his daughter to have two hours of exercise every day. But if it weren’t for the athletic talent he spotted in her at an early age, Xi said, he wouldn’t risk allocating so much time for sports. “The girl could possibly open a new door to her life with her sporting capabilities,” he said. “She’s spending much more time on sports than her peers.”
“Many parents don’t think much about sports, and few understand the science behind getting their children to exercise,” Xi added. “If that awareness doesn’t improve, it will be hard to make any fundamental change to the current situation.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: High school students take part in a physical fitness competition in Shanghai, June 5, 2006. Zhang Dong for Sixth Tone)