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    In China, Parents Turn to ‘Magic Potions’ to Help Kids Run Faster

    China has made sports a core subject in its national high school entrance exams. The result: a booming market for dubious performance-enhancing products.

    When China made sports a core subject in its national high school entrance exams in 2021, the aim was to make sure that children all over the country got plenty of exercise. The move has paid off — possibly too well in some cases.

    As this year’s sports exams begin across the country, stories are emerging of parents going to sometimes worrying lengths to help their children perform at their maximum.

    Many are reportedly encouraging their children to drink “pre-workout” drinks — energy drinks that specifically market themselves as helping students improve their performance in the national sports exams.

    But the secret ingredients in these “magic potions” — as some have styled themselves — are simply high levels of caffeine, taurine, and other substances such as creatine, health experts told domestic media.

    Some children who drank “pre-workout” drinks reportedly experienced serious health issues. One student was taken to the hospital to have their stomach pumped. Others vomited profusely and suffered breathing difficulties.

    If taken in too large doses, strong energy drinks like these can cause dizziness, an accelerated heartbeat, or even death, a pharmacist in the southwestern city of Chengdu told domestic media. Individuals with heart problems should avoid using them.

    On Taobao, a major Chinese e-commerce platform, one “pre-workout” drink claims to improve students’ performance in sports exams by helping them run faster. It has already sold more than 5,000 bottles.

    In the comments, parents’ reactions are mixed. “My child tried it and felt pretty good, they ran a kilometer and didn’t feel as tired,” one user wrote. However, another user claimed their child felt sick after consuming the product.

    “Pre-workout” drinks are just one segment of a booming industry focusing on China’s sports exams. Companies appear to have learned that parents are willing to pay significant sums to help their kids succeed in these crucial tests.

    Many Chinese parents consider the high school entrance exams, known as the zhongkao, to be the ultimate “make or break” exam. Every 15-year-old in the country sits the exams, and the pass rate is only around 50%, according to official data. Those who fail are unable to attend a regular high school and are moved into the vocational education system.

    Concerned about China’s rising child obesity rate, the authorities made sports one of the central subjects in the zhongkao in 2021. In some provinces, the sports test — which includes events such as swimming, skipping, long-distance running, sit-ups, and basketball — carries almost as much weight as math and Chinese.

    Ever since, parents — and marketers — have been looking for ways to help children ace the tests. Sneaker brands have released shoes that claim to be specially tailored to the zhongkao tests. One such product claims to be made from carbon fiber that provides students with superior grip.

    Many Chinese education companies have begun offering physical education classes that are specifically designed to help kids succeed in the zhongkao sports exams. Market leader New Oriental, which was badly impacted by China’s ban on after-school academic tutoring in 2021, has made a big play in this area.

    Parents are also sharing dubious sports exam hacks on social media. Some advise having children wear hoodies when taking the sit-up test, with the hood supposedly offering additional support. Some families are even putting their daughters on contraceptive pills to delay their menstrual cycles, several parents told Sixth Tone.

    Some in China are beginning to raise concerns over the way that the sports exams are becoming increasingly test-oriented. Local authorities in some areas have begun reducing the weighting of the final physical exams, instead putting more emphasis on students’ performance in gym classes throughout the school year.

    Last year, several cities made the long-distance running test optional rather than compulsory, citing students’ lack of fitness after three years of pandemic controls. The test has become compulsory again this year, but many cities have reduced the requirements.

    Yu Weijun, a 42-year-old mother from the eastern city of Ningbo, said that she supported the city’s decision to make the long-distance running test easier, but added that the sports exams were a good thing overall.

    “I believe that children shouldn’t just study,” said Yu. “If there’s no requirement for physical education in the zhongkao, other subjects will definitely take priority over gym classes, and students will be even less likely to do sports.”

    Contributions: Li Dongxu.

    (Header image: VCG)