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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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.
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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.
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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.