Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Gymnastics for All" in China

(photo courtesy: CGA)

On May 6th, Canadian gymnastics cultural exchange meeting was held in Kunshan City. During the meeting, deputy director of Chinese gymnastics association Huang Yubin and Canada gymnastics program director Jeff Thomson announced the launch of Inspire Spirit Clubs project to build the “Gymnastic for All” program in China. Gymnastics for All, aka General Gymnastics, is a successful recreational gymnastics program created by GymCan. Thomson said that the goal of the project is to develop a Chinese style “Gymnastics for All” program by combining gym china’s strength in competitive gymnastics with the GymCan’s successful experience in recreational gymnastics. The two parties are now jointly building gymnastics clubs in Shanghai, Jiangshu and Zhejiang provinces.

News clip can be found here. Not sure about the scale of this project yet, but it will be one relatively big recreational gymnastics project in China. (Hey, Canada Counsel General Shanghai attended that meeting, and there must be more than one or two clubs they were talking about here).

Chinese gymnastics association had been trying in the last few years to promote recreational gymnastics with its own “general gymnastic” program called Happy Gymnastics. The origin of the Chinese “general gymnastic” program can be traced back to late 2000 after Chinese MAG’s first Olympic team gold in Sydney. (One has to be amazed by how an Olympic gold can do to boost country’s gymnastics program – look at what 84 AA gold and 96 team gold did to the US gymnastics and gyms enrollment). Chinese gymnastics association attempted at promoting the sport in regular schools, which did not work, and creating more private gymnastics programs. Li Xiaoshuang gymnastics school was built in Oct. 2001. Another upsurge for the "general gymnastics" programs development was post-2008 Olympic Games. Li Ning opened his 2nd gymnastics school in Zhuhai, Guangdong in 2009. And the Experimental Elementary School Affiliated to Shanghai Jiaotong University started its own gymnastics program. The gymnastics schools and programs did manage to produce some successful gymnasts that were eventually recruited by provincial or national gymnastics teams. However the primary focus of those gymnastics schools has been competitive gymnastics.

Early this year Li Xiaoshuang gymnastics school hit the national headlines in China. According to the report, nearly 90% of the gymnasts in the school did not make it to provincial gymnastics teams and had difficulty in keeping up with the regular education system after they graduated from gymnastic schools (China has a quite tough academic system, though). I think that piece of news served as a wakeup call to the fact that those private gymnastics school may not be a solution for promoting the sport to the general public after all. In recent years, the stereotype of gymnastics in China has been dangerous (-Sang Lang vault accident) and excessive hardworking (-the “cruel” training photos exposed). Now with the private gymnastics programs being targeted for criticism, CGA badly needs a better and more effective way of promoting gymnastics as a general sport.

For over 50 years, gymnastics has been mainly an elite sport in China. But the access to gymnastics should not be limited to competitive athletes alone. Three major challenges, among others, stand in a way of building “general gymnastics” in China: lack of gym facility, lack of experienced coaches for recreational gymnastics, and the sport’s negative images. The first obstacle is relatively easy to overcome with good projects, especially with the new facilities being built. Besides, China has its own gymnastics equipment suppliers; and the gym enrollment fees are becoming affordable for ordinary families in big cities. Coaching wise, China has one of the best coach team in the world. But their coaching experience is pretty much limited to competitive gymnastics. Chinese gymnastics program can certainly use some help in the recreational gymnastics department. And more than anything else, the refreshing western gymnastics training style and the success of western gymnastics clubs can provide some inspirations for the still uptight Chinese gymnastics. When Shawn Johnson and Chow Liang were on a CCTV sports program during the 08 Games, the show was such a big hit. The Chinese audience were especially impressed by Chow’s “gymnastics through games” concept. The western-style gymnastics club systems, which have been very successful in western European countries and the States, may be a suitable option for Chinese "general gymnastics" program.

One big reason Canada gymnastics program got this “gymnastics for all” project from CGA is that the co-founder of Inspire Spirit Company - Liang Cheng is a former Chinese MAG team member. (A salute to Mr. Cheng for the work he put into China-Canada gymnastics collaboration, especially for China’s going to 2010/2011 triple full wild rose internationals).

I believe that Inspire Sprit will help promote gymnastics in the 3 Chinese provinces (will follow up on the progress). But there are definitely rooms for more than just one foreign gymnastics clubs in China, especially with the large pre-school population. Can some gymnastics clubs in the States join the market? (I have personally seen some really good recreational gymnastics programs in local gyms in greater DC and NJ area.) US gymnastics club owners or coaches should at least look out for opportunities as the Chinese recreational gymnastics develop.


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