STEVE INSKEEP, host:
As China's gold medal total increases to 42, that very number highlights the gap in funding between elite athletes and sports for the masses in China. China's investment of millions of dollars on individual sportsman comes at the expense of public exercise facilities. And we have more this morning from NPR's Louisa Lim in Beijing.
LOUISA LIM: A 17th century poet, William Lathum, once compared the world to a tennis court, where fate and fortune daily meet to play. This is true in more ways than one in today's China. Much sport is still the preserve of the elite, those with time and money. That's especially the case with sports that have been more recently introduced in China, like tennis and golf.
Mr. JAMES PENG: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: If you counted all the tennis courts in China, says tennis fan James Peng, there are probably fewer than in New York state alone.
Ms. JIANG YING: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: I belong to a tennis club, so it's cheaper for me, says avid tennis player, 37-year-old Jiang Ying. But still I spend more than $300 a month booking courts. Most Chinese parks boast an array of rudimentary exercise machines and ping pong tables, all extremely well-used. As the standard of living improves, exercise is playing a bigger part in people's lives. The concept is still relatively new. Physical education classes were only added to the curriculum in 1992. The government says it's spent $430 million over the past eight years providing public sports facilities. That may sound like a lot, but it's just over half the sports administration budget for the year 2000 alone. That money is earmarked for training the elite athletes snapping up China's numerous golds.
Mr. LIU GUOYONG (General Administration of Sport): (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: In a rare admission, Liu Guoyong from the General Administration of Sport told reporters government resources aren't nearly enough to meet people's exercise needs. He went on, this shortage will remain for quite a long time.
(Soundbite of splash in pool)
LIM: That shortage is one of the reasons behind the existence of the Houhai Winter Swimmers Club in Beijing. It's an informal group of swimmers, many of them retired workers, who meet every afternoon to take a dip in the murky waters of one of Beijing's lakes. It's technically illegal to swim here, but the authorities turn a blind eye to the swimmers, some of whom break the ice to take their ritual dip even in the depth of winter.
Mr. SHEN SONG (Service Industry Worker): (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Although the water is dirty, it's very refreshing, enthuses Shen Song who works in the service industry. Swimming is my hobby, and I like the freedom of swimming here.
(Soundbite of drumbeat)
LIM: It's certainly a picturesque place to wallow. The drumbeat of a dragon boat skimming across the lake echoes over the waters, as divers plunge into the lake. The bathers here are proud of China's gold medals, but say they wish more money could be invested in sports facilities for ordinary people. There's speculation the sports system may reform after the Olympics, but no one knows what changes are afoot.
Mr. WANG YANSHENG: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: Each visit to the swimming pool costs $4 a time, says 67-year-old retired worker Wang Yansheng. And Chairman Mao called for us to swim in lakes and rivers. We're keeping fit and saving money. Sometimes when I'm really having a good time, he goes on, I'll sing while I swim.
Mr. YANSHENG: (Singing in Chinese)
LIM: And with that, he bursts into song, against the buzz of cicadas. He's beaming from the sidelines as the swimmers splash into the deep green waters under the weeping willows. This, at least, is one experience money can't buy.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.