This is part of an ongoing series following a man’s train journey across China. For part one, click here.
Once all related costs have been factored in, the total tab for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is estimated to have been around $40 billion. China is a developing country, with more than 80 million citizens living on less than $1 a day as of 2014, and this begs the question: What was the legacy of the 2008 Olympics? How have they affected the common person in China?
I decided to take some time to find out. When I reached the first stop on my journey, Harbin, the capital of China’s northern Heilongjiang province, I stopped by a well-known fitness chain called Hosa. I was curious to see if the popularity of the 2008 Olympics had made people more aware of the importance of body health and had inspired them to follow a fitness routine. Unfortunately, only four people were there at the time, none of whom looked particularly approachable.
Not to be deterred, I next tried a park — China’s exercise hotspot. I struck gold in Zhaolin Park, one of the city’s most well-known green spaces, famous for its ice festival in the winter. When I entered the gates, I was swarmed by crowds of people who were running, walking, stretching, and dancing.
The athletes out that day were mostly men older than 50 who were taking advantage of the exercise equipment you can find installed in most parks across China. At one end of the equipment stood a Ping-Pong table that everyone was ignoring, which surprised me since the game is often referred to as China’s national sport.
I struck up a conversation with a man who was passing through the park on his way home after having accompanied his granddaughter to the hospital. She had broken her arm earlier this summer after falling off one of the exercise machines in this very park. At one point our chat turned to the 2016 Rio Olympics, and I asked what he thought about them. He replied that it wasn’t something he thought about.
I decided to try again when I reached Dalian, in northeastern China’s Liaoning province. The first fitness club I visited tried to charge me 600 yuan (about $90) for a trial session. Luckily, as I was leaving an employee let me in on a little inside information: Two floors above us there was another, much cheaper gym that was hard to spot from street level.
This gym was a hive of activity, and I soon got talking with a personal trainer and a patron, Vivian. I asked the two if they thought the Beijing Olympics had encouraged more people to take up athletics. “Not really,” they responded in unison.
I questioned Vivian about the Rio Games and her favorite Olympic sport. She revealed to me that she didn’t even realize the Olympics were starting to this week and that she liked ice skating. I decided not to mention that this particular event wasn’t part of the Summer Games.
At another point during my travels I met a man called Zhang Yu. He worked at a gym in a high-rise three floors above the gym I was going to. When he found out that I was planning on going to his competitor, he quickly facilitated a day pass.
Zhang had watched some of the Beijing Games in 2008 at his home in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. He was still in high school at the time, but he remembers clearly the feeling of excitement that came with seeing so many nationalities and flags circling the Beijing National Stadium.
Zhang told me that for him, the school didn’t foster a love of sport. There had been physical education classes, but these were more designed just to stay healthy instead of foster competition, and were generally cut out in the weeks leading up to an exam period anyway. His parents didn’t push him either — in their opinion, more time on sports meant less time in reality.
The countless gyms and equipment in public parks show that China has a dedicated movement of people embracing exercise. Big events like the Beijing Olympics can get people excited, but the momentum needs to be maintained after the hype has subsided.
During the Rio Olympics, Chinese social media has exploded with images of swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s silly facial expressions and the marriage proposal between divers He Zi and Qin Kai. In this way, it almost seems like the country is more interested in personal stories and tabloid news than athletics. From my experience, the competitive sports fanaticism I have seen in other countries is sorely lacking in China.
At least Vivian will be happy when the Winter Olympics come to Beijing in 2022 and she can finally watch China compete in ice skating.
To be continued.
(Header image: People walk past the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium in Beijing, illuminated at night with the logo of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Aug. 4, 2016. Thomas Peter/Reuters)