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Sports for the Common People

Are you tired of popular sports like football, basketball or tennis? Bored with competitions where athletes are constantly pushed to the edge?

No problem. There is a wide range of alternatives for common people in China.

Many derive much pleasure from other forms of exercise, like their childhood pastimes, which bring the same benefits as other, more demanding sports. Participants can even compete with one another for regional, national and even international top prizes.

The State General Administration of Sports -- the nation's governing sports office has listed in its developmental agenda a wide range of activities deeply rooted in the nation's rich and varied culture to encourage more people to exercise to improve their overall health.

The list includes such pastimes as fishing, "gateball," roller-skating, dragon-boat racing, kicking shuttlecocks, tug-of-war, "yangko" dancing and even kite flying, to name a few.

These light-hearted pastimes are receiving renewed favor among the Chinese people due to their relatively low energy levels and their deep cultural roots. It is not surprising that the administration has included such activities in its "National Fitness Program."

"You do not have to be muscular or extremely fast to enjoy yourself in these light pastimes, and they do not demand that you be in top physical condition," says Lei Jun, vice-head of the Sports-for-All Administrative Center, the guiding division of the fitness program.

"These light sports are not too challenging and fit easily into people's everyday routines, and the number of people engaged in them has been growing very fast over the past few years."

Lei and his colleagues have been working hard to promote these activities, which, though well-known in China, have not yet been as widely adopted desired.

Some standard rules are needed, particularly for holding local or national competitions since there are so many different playing methods around the country, even in a single sport, according to Lei.

"We have to study these sports and set rules for them so that outsiders interested in them will have a better understanding of how to play such games."

Lei uses "yangko," a traditional street dance with strong folk rhythms, often accompanied by song, as an example.

"There are four main famous sets of steps, and we have to unify and standardize them and work out routines, as has been done in sports like gymnastics," he says, adding: "Then the dancers can be judged on their performance of certain steps and awarded points. This will make the sport easier to learn and thus attractive to more people."

Cost is something else Lei has to take into consideration because, unlike heavily funded popular sports, these new sports get little in the way of assistance, with most of the money coming from the participants themselves and local communities.

"We do not get money from the national sports office so we need to find ways to draw funds into these community-centered sports," admits Lei.

Lei's work also includes raising funds for the fitness program and organizing large-scale mass sporting activities.

However, not all of the pastimes can be included in the agenda since the center has set some criteria, according to Lei.

"Feasibility, following and market potential are all factors we must take into consideration."

 Dragon-boat racing

Dragon-boat racing, one of China's oldest traditional sports, dates back more than 2,000 years. The sport, with a huge number of both spectators and participants, is widely popular in Southern China, especially in Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

Last year, over 8,000 people and 200 boats took part in a dragon boat regatta organized by Nanhai County in Guangdong Province.

Recently, the sport has spread to Guangdong's neighbor, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and Central China's Hunan and Hubei provinces, as well as North China's Tianjin, Beijing and Jilin Province in Northeast China.

The sport has also been taken up in more than 40 countries and regions beyond China.

The International Dragon Boat Federation and the Asian Dragon Boat Federation were set in 1991 and 1992 respectively.

The China Dragon Boat Association was established in 1985.

There are hundreds of different dragon-boat competitions in China and the world every year. The annual World Dragon Boat Championships have been held annually since 1995.

International competition standards allow 28 people per boat to race over courses of 250, 500 and 800 meters.

Within China, however, the rules vary: The number of rowers in a boat, for example, can range from two to 100 people or more.

 Dragon and lion dances

These dances are not only a popular part of traditional festivals held throughout China but also competitive sports.

Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, the dances have developed into two main styles -- the southern and the northern forms.

In Southern China, the dancers mainly perform on top of wooden posts or large wooden frames, while in north the dancing is usually done on the ground.

In competitions the dancers are required to perform martial-arts-style technical movements. On the frame the dancers compete by climbing the frame to seize an object on top.

The International Dragon and Lion Dance Association was founded in Hong Kong in 1995 and its headquarters were moved to Beijing two years later. It now has 16 members.

There are dozens of dance competitions in China and around the world every year.

 Shuttlecock kicking

This sport has a relatively long history in China; it was named an official sport in 1984.

The sport is divided into shuttlecock kicking and artistic shuttlecocking.

In the first form, players kick, pass and block the shuttlecock over a net, like in volleyball. In artistic shuttlecocking, technical difficulty and continuity are the main points of interest for the judges.

The China Shuttlecock Association was established in 1987 and the International Shuttlecock Federation was set up in 1999. It is headquartered in Beijing.

The sport is also an official event in the China's National Ethnic Games.

 Kite flying

Kite flying is a traditional Chinese pastime, with millions of followers across the nation. As a sport, it became an official event in 1991. At present, Weifang, a city in Shandong Province (a.k.a. "Kite City"); Beijing; Guiyang, Guizhou Province; and Dalian, Liaoning Province, all host regular kite-flying competitions.

The Weifang International Kite Festival is one of the most famous competitions, with tens of thousands of participants, many of whom come from abroad.

The China Kite Association, which was set up in 1987, also organizes national competitions and hosts up to five international events every year.

The International Kite Federation was set up in 1989.

 Yangko

Guzi Yangko

Formerly a kind of recreational dance enjoyed by farmers after a day's work, "yangko" has become a traditional street dance with strong folk rhythms or singing, with dancers dressed in costumes, holding fans or handkerchiefs.

There are four main sets of steps in yanko that have originated in different parts of the country -- the Northeast, Hebei, Shandong and Eastern Shaanxi Province.

In 2000, the State General Administration of Sports worked out a set of steps that blends the four routines together.

The administration has choreographed a second routine and a third routine is currently in the works.

While the routines provide some criteria for judges in competitions, the traditional forms of yangko remain on the national competition list.