Former Chinese soccer star pushes a radical idea: sports for fun

Gao Hong wants her country to view sports as more than a medal race.

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Jiang Jingting, a fifth-grader in green sneakers, shows little potential for Olympic glory. In China’s official mind-set of success, there’s no reason for her to play sports.

Gao Hong begs to differ.

The goalie for China’s 2004 silver-medal soccer team in Sydney, she learned in her 19-year career that athletics aren’t just about winning medals and national pride. They also help teach teamwork, discipline, and confidence. And (gasp) sports can be fun.

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That is a radical concept in China, where physical-education class became a school requirement only in 1992 – and is still not always offered.

But Ms. Gao now has a growing legion of allies, parents, who also see sports as a valuable tool for fitness and for teaching important life skills.

In a year, the retired sports star and her five-person staff have visited more than 400 schools and taught hundreds of coaches their unorthodox ideas.

She’s not promoting soccer or any one sport, but PE games that cultivate teamwork and fun in elementary schools, using a curriculum designed by Right to Play (RTP), an international organization.

“Gao has been very instrumental in starting up” the program, says Wei Wei, RTP China’s national director. “Given who she is, the type of recognition she gets, she can do that very easily…. She also has the skill [and] the passion.”

While Gao’s celebrity has won her many an official’s support, the state pays little attention to this kind of curriculum.

The national sports bureau, called the General Sports Administration (GSA), pours its resources into training top talent for international competition. Official policy since 1984 has been to encourage mass sports, too – through colleges and clubs. But progress has been slow, says Susan Brownell, a visiting professor at Beijing Sports University.

Schools, which are built around entrance exams, budget little for PE. The government requires them to spend an hour a day on physical fitness and sportsmanship. But the reality is often one PE teacher trying to corral 50 students into uninspiring activities a few times a week.

Parents who want to enroll their kids in sports are turning to private clubs and coaches, Professor Brownell says.

They’re part of a rising chorus who say China focuses too much on elite competition at the expense of PE and youth sports.

Official data show that indicators of children’s health have fallen even as PE requirements have increased, says Guoli Liang, an expert on PE in China at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.

Sports also teach children “how to work together, how to respect each other, how to respect differences, how to win and lose,” he adds. “So if they don’t participate in those, they won’t know how to deal with that.”

The games Gao teaches help a lot, says Gao Jianguo, Jingting’s PE coach. He and other teachers at Xiao Wei elementary school learned the RTP curriculum almost two years ago.

Children here used to fight a lot, but after just a few games, they virtually stopped, Mr. Gao says.

“I think [Gao Hong’s] bringing these games to China is very good,” he says. “China has never had games like these, [but] they can really change a kid.”

Gao became a believer in the real-life value of sports over the course of her career.
Like her outlook on sports, her trajectory didn’t hew to Chinese norms. Instead of entering the state system from childhood until retirement, Gao didn’t join until she was 18, in 1984. After playing on provincial teams for nine years, she joined a league in Japan.

In 1995, she returned to China to start for the national team. Two Olympic silvers and a World Cup final later, Gao moved to the US in 2001, one of a few Chinese players recruited for the new Women’s United Soccer Association.

Still, the star player had low points. The biggest humiliation of her career became an unforgettable moment in women’s soccer.

Remember the 1999 World Cup finals, when America’s ecstatic Brandi Chastain tore off her shirt after scoring the winning penalty kick? Gao was the goalie who failed to block the ball.

Injuries hampered her first two WUSA seasons before the league fizzled in the third. Gao retired in 2003.

Those dramatic years “made me realize the value of sports,” Gao says. She learned to handle big ups and downs, be part of a team, and work hard. She realized soccer could have greater purpose than winning, such as being a role model for youths.

“Gao was one of the most amazing female athletes, but she was also amazing personalitywise,” her former WUSA coach, Patrick Farmer, enthuses. “She had a true sportsman’s attitude” and “a broader view” than other players.

“If she’d been over here [in the US], she’d be in the top five heroes” of women’s soccer, he adds.

But Gao’s task now is to win over Chinese authorities. With a government that’s tepid about PE and suspicious of international NGOs, making such friends is the crux of her strategy, Gao says.

RTP relies on the sports celebrity to make inroads it couldn’t. Like most NGOs, RTP isn’t authorized to work in China. Yet Gao started its program here and wrangled a three-room office on the grounds of the GSA. Her dream is to get the games into the national PE curriculum.

“We’re first international NGO to work with the [GSA] in the history of the [GSA],” she says.

“A lot of people are very easily convinced when she’s around,” says Mr. Wei, of RTP.

* * *

Games by Gao

Gao Hong values the games that she and her trainers teach so much that she’s invented her own.

In her favorite, which she sketches excitedly with circles and arrows, kids break into two groups and try to get the ball to their goals on opposite ends of the field by passing it among teammates.

But for the first five minutes, nobody’s allowed to talk. That forces them to communicate creatively, Ms. Gao explains, clapping and waving her arms to demonstrate.
For the next five minutes, both teams can say whatever they want. Usually this involves spewing all the frustrations pent up from the first phase.

In the last five minutes, they can keep talking – but say only positive things.

Then we discuss, Gao concludes with a flourish. How did each phase feel, and how can they communicate better in real life?

Kids learn a lot from this game, she says. PE teachers do, too. Many begin sharing about their marriages and personal lives.

The games are just as useful for them as for the kids, she laughs.

– C.H.

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