Since 2008, when China hosted the Olympics, athletic passion has become almost a patriotic duty. But the most visible forms of exercise are fairly timeless; head to any public space in the morning and you’ll see citizens going through all sorts of martial-arts routines, playing ping pong and street badminton, even ballroom dancing. Sadly though, facilities for organized sport are fairly limited.
The Chinese are good at “small ball” games such as squash and badminton, and, of course, table tennis, at which they are world champions, but admit room for improvement in the “big ball” games, such as football. Nevertheless, Chinese men follow foreign football avidly, with games from the European leagues shown on CCTV5. There’s also a national obsession among students for basketball, which predates the rise to international fame of NBA star Yao Ming, who plied his trade for the Houston Rockets.
If China has an indigenous “sport”, however, it’s the martial arts – not surprising, perhaps, in a country whose history is littered with long periods of civil conflict. Today, there are hundreds of Chinese martial-arts styles, often taught for exercise rather than for fighting.
As for outdoor activities, hiking for its own sake is slowly catching on, though tourists have plenty of opportunities for step-aerobic-type exercise up long, steep staircases ascending China’s many holy mountains. Snow sports have become popular in Dongbei, which has several ski resorts, while the wilds of Yunnan and Sichuan, along with Qinghai and Tibet, are drawing increasing numbers of adventurous young city-born Chinese – always dressed in the latest outdoor gear – to mountaineering and four-wheel-drive expeditions.