Dalian, China — China’s recent emergence on the world stage as an athletic powerhouse may be traced back to a single runner from this northeastern city. Liu Changchun, whose giant bronze likeness is frozen in an exaggerated midsprint in the middle of Dalian’s Olympic Square, was the first Chinese to compete in a global sporting event — the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles — where he was his nation’s sole representative.
Mr. Liu did not live to see China win a gold medal, but a lot has changed since his death in 1983. China, now the world’s second-largest economy, increasingly is a major force at the elite level of sports, fitting for the most populous nation on the planet. China won the most gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and it is churning out tennis champions like Li Na and basketball stars like Yao Ming. The government preaches that only a nation of strong bodies is truly strong.
But as the country grows richer, the expanding middle class appears to be only slowly growing fitter. The athletic fields at Olympic Square one recent afternoon are all but empty, though the nearby McDonald’s is doing good business.
Unlike Sydney, London and Paris, hardly a cyclist or jogger is to be seen in this city of six million, where bike lanes are clogged with cars and the only runners are pedestrians trying to get safely across eight-lane roads. The World Health Organization says that the obesity rate in some Chinese cities is close to 20 percent.
But something is going on behind the scenes: it is hardly an athletic revolution of the people, but the foundation for one may be forming. Anecdotal evidence shows that more people are participating in amateur sports. Gyms, clubs and gear shops are growing in number. And the state is supporting not just future Olympians, but also fitness at the grass-roots level.
Wang Rui, 30, sits beside the pool underneath the Dalian Oriental Houston Hotel as several women swim laps.
As a child, Mr. Wang swam in the sea because there were few pools. Today, he can quickly name six public pools in the city, not including the hotel pools with general admission like this one.
Pools in Dalian can easily be filled with 200 people at any given time, he says, and swimmers must often wait their turn. Sun Lin, this pool’s lanky lifeguard, says: “Compared to before, fewer people come to just talk.”
Across town is Bally Total Fitness, a swank gym in the heart of the financial district that opened nine years ago as a partnership between the local government and a U.S. chain. It has 27 treadmills and machines that in quality stand up to those in the West. It is mostly empty on a late afternoon, but Zhang Zifan, a marketing manager, says that it will fill up in the hours ahead.
A second Bally’s has since opened. and the two gyms count about 10,000 members, up from about 4,000 four years ago, despite costing 6,000 renminbi, or $940, a year, according to Mr. Zhang. Fitness centers often average about 2,500 renminbi a year, he says.
Meanwhile, social clubs focused on sports are on the rise. Li Kai, a 26-year-old lawyer, joined the Lawyer Associate Badminton Club three years ago. At the time there were 200 members. Today, the club has 500. A Web site allows members to schedule matches to play one of China’s most popular sports.
Mr. Li likes badminton because it is “elegant,” he says, and he plays the sport about six hours a week.
Mr. Li strolls through an underground athletic complex below the Sweetland Hotel, not far from Olympic Square. It is an enormous maze of badminton courts, gyms, bowling alleys, and gear shops. Never mind that the Internet cafe was the most frequented spot one particular afternoon. Mr. Li insists that China is getting fitter.
One would certainly have to believe him based on the number of sport shops around town. In one of the city’s main pedestrian zones, billboards touting Adidas and Li-Ning , China’s homegrown brand, compete for space with the likes of Coca-Cola , Mercedes-Benz and Omega.
The Dalian Sporting Goods Store, which opened in 1986, was the city’s first such shop. Su Fei, the director, says that the shop drew people from all over the region. Business is still strong, but growth is not what it once was, she says. Ms. Su says the slowdown in growth is not due to shoppers losing their enthusiasm, but because of the abundance of competitors around town. There is Decathlon out near the Ikea, and the many shops below the Sweetland Hotel that the badminton clubs frequent.
But like so much of what happens in China, it may be the state that will determine how fit the nation’s people will be.
Xu Guangsong walks through the halls of his Shahekou Qizhi School for the disabled, where he is a sports teacher. Mr. Xu, 40, explains that when he began teaching 20 years ago, pupils’ physical education grades counted for nothing. Today, they are a factor in overall scores, just like math, history and language.
For Mr. Xu’s pupils, sports play an especially important role. The students here are mentally disabled, but physically capable.
The school’s successes decorate the halls. Mr. Xu points to the portrait of one student who won the world record for the 100-meter dash in 2007 in Shanghai at the Special Olympics’ World Summer Games. Another student won a gold medal in the long jump.
All the athletes have to train on is a small patch of Astroturf; there is no proper track or sandbox. But Mr. Xu says the city government is going to change that. Next year, he and his students will move from their 36-year-old grounds into a brand new campus with a standard outdoor track and underground gymnasium. Mr. Xu says the move is a reflection of his school’s success and the government’s desire to improve infrastructure, even for the disabled.
At the same time, the government is showing its financial support for training more elite athletes. Sun Xiaofei, 22, has not been to school since he was 15. He has not needed to. He is a professional swimmer and employee of the state.
Mr. Sun is ranked No. 2 in Liaoning Province in the butterfly stroke and No. 5 in the backstroke.
One recent evening, Mr. Sun sipped a mocha frappuccino at a Starbucks some distance from his dorm, where there is little risk of being spotted by a coach he said would be angered by his slipping off campus. He is perspiring after a full day of training, and creases from his goggles still circle his eyes.
Mr. Sun does not expect to ever go to the Olympics, but it does not seem to matter. He is happy with his life, in part because the government is pouring more resources into people like him. When he began seven years ago, dinners consisted of four dishes and two kinds of bread and rice. Today, there are 10 dishes and six types of bread and rice. A new pool cuts the number of people swimming per lane to three from six.
An hour of video games are on the agenda before bed. The remains of his frappuccino in hand, Mr. Sun leaps over a chain barrier as he takes a shortcut back to his dorm on the path to a fitter China.