SHANGHAI, (Reuters) – Change is unfolding at Shanghai’s No.1 Children’s Sports School Pudong New Area, a small cog in a state-run machine that has churned out Chinese Olympic champions for three and a half decades.
China’s sports system has been enormously successful since the country returned to the Olympic fold in 1980, culminating with the host nation topping the medals’ table at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with only a slight dip into second place behind the United States in London four years later.
And yet, with the Rio de Janeiro Games less than three months away, the system is beginning to break down due to the shifting demographics of a more prosperous nation.
It poses a big challenge to the school’s party committee secretary, Huang Qin, whose institution is one of 2,183 around the country producing 95 percent of the country’s Olympians.
Fewer parents are willing to let their children endure gruelling training routines from as young as six years of age, leading to a fall in student numbers. Some schools have closed and others are adjusting the way they work. The number of sport schools is down from 3,687 in 1990, government numbers show.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, schools like ours were extremely attractive,” Huang said, recalling a time when families were poorer and generous sports subsidies were more highly prized.
The school’s alumni include former Olympians such as hurdler Chen Yanhao and female footballer Xie Huilin.
“(But) parents are less willing now to send their child to sports schools if they perform fairly well in exams…The source of students for sports schools has shrunk as society placed more importance on cultural education.”
Debates about the continued relevance of the sports school system began to emerge around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Huang and other schools said, as emerging tales of difficulties facing retired athletes jarred against rising expectations of education standards among China’s booming middle-class.
The country’s declining birth rate as a result of China’s one-child policy has not helped either, along with its cut-throat education system, which sees Chinese students spend twice as much time on homework a day compared to the global average.
Beijing responded to these concerns in 2010 by issuing a new policy, known as document 23, ordering sport schools to improve teaching standards and to give more support to retired athletes.
At the No.1 Children’s Sports School Pudong New Area, Huang said it had improved its teacher training. Three years ago, it also relaxed a 40-year tradition of requiring its entire student cohort to study, train and live full-time on campus.
Now, more than half of the school’s 700 athletes study at other schools. Of its remaining 300 or so full-time students, about 10 percent live off-campus.
Other schools like the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School, are going into kindergartens to advertise gymnastics as an after-school play time activity to parents. “We call it happy gymnastics,” said principal Zhu Zengxiang.