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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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March 21, 2008 8:07 AM

Aerobic Olympics

Posted by Daniel Beekman

According to Technogym, fitness equipment supplier for Beijing 2008, 300 million Chinese can afford to work out in private gyms. Only 0.6 percent do.

"We old Beijingers prefer to exercise outside," said a 72-year old man stringing his kite for a flight above Ditan Park, near the city's largest Buddhist temple. It was afternoon and the sky a dingy gray. "The air is better out here. And look at all these trees. It's great."

Technogym, an Italian company founded in 1983 (Technogym USA is located in Seattle), owes its global success to a series of stylish hi-tech machines. Favored by sports and Hollywood celebrities including (Forumula 1 race-car driver) Michael Shumacher, (European soccer star) Paolo Maldini, Madonna and Brad Pitt, Technogym previously equipped the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Turino 2006 Olympics.

On account of China's enormous population, significant fitness culture and overwhelming support for the Games - these 2008 Beijing Olympics represent Technogym's biggest break to date. The company will install and operate 12 training centers at locations convenient to athletes and reporters.

"China is a really important market for Technogym. We see the Games as a starting point for growth," Federica Cortezzi of Technogym said. "We're hoping that after the Olympics many new gyms will open in China and more people will buy fitness equipment. In fact, we expect an explosion."

Around the world, practices related to physical and mental fitness are among the best-known aspects of Chinese traditional culture. Each morning, Beijingers stream into the city's leafy parks for calisthenics, meditation and song (see 'A walk in the park' - January 18).

Time-tested Chinese exercises employ patterned movements and are considered health building. People here understand fitness as part of a comprehensive philosophy.

"I exercise a lot - perform taijichuan (tai chi) and hike," said a middle-aged woman resting in Ditan Park. "But we approach fitness from a different angle than you in the West. We exercise in order to maintain balance. Your body, my body - all human bodies are of two qualities: yin and yang. So when we exercise, we attend to both.

"I can't say that you Westerners are wrong, but you pursue a different objective. Whereas we aspire to health, you aspire to size, speed and strength."

According to Cortezzi, Technogym promotes a 'wellness philosophy' that's congruent with traditional Chinese fitness values. Yet the company harbors no false illusions when it comes to China’s older generation.

"The Chinese know wellness - the elderly know," Cortezzi said. "They prefer exercising outside, for free. They've made up their minds. And for them, that is beautiful. However, we have a new generation in China."

Technogym is excited about the Chinese fitness market for a number of reasons. The country's post-reform economic surge has driven up salaries. People here are searching out luxury products and services - like trendy gyms - more than ever before. They're also eating Big Macs and working longer hours than under Mao.

"Our kids and young adults don't watch their health so well," said a 56-year old retiree who swims and stretches at her neighborhood gym twice a week. "All those burgers are bad for them. They spend too much time at the computer. Even as students, their lives are pressure-packed and painful."

Changing Chinese lifestyles aren't Technogym's only cause for optimism. In 1995, Beijing enacted a nation-wide 'Physical Culture Law' proposing that all citizens, particularly children, engage in at least one sports activity each day.

By the end of last year, a National Fitness Program targeted 37 percent of all Chinese (481 million people) were to be participating in physical exercise daily. As of 2000, there were 100,000 part-time sports instructors and 620,000-plus sports facilities in China.

Of course, the country's sports scene remains restricted - by design. Since 1949, China has funneled its most promising athletes and coaches into an elite, centralized system. Most Chinese people enjoy limited access to fields, gyms and courts.

There, from Technogym's perspective, is where the 2008 Olympics come in. From government spending to product placement, the Games have spread a sport gospel throughout China.

"We care little for the Olympics," Ditan’s kite-master said. "But young people are different. Very few of them play traditional sports. They're ashamed of us old guys. And because of the Games, many facilities have been opened to them."

"Everyone wants to participate in the Olympics," explained a 25-year old Beijing gym attendant. "More and more people are joining our gym, because they want to improve their body civilization. They participate in swimming and kickboxing."

"Everyone knows about the Games," said one woman reading at a McDonald's in Beijing. "So everyone's physical health is improving. We're motivated to exercise because we want to help China win many golds."

Beyond Beijing, huge numbers of Chinese still live in poverty. Technogym, Cortezzi said, is not for them. Olympics or not, China's peasants don't possess the necessary money or time.

"I like to play basketball, but these days I can't," a 20-year old security guard from Yunnan province said sadly. "I've worked a 13-hour night shift since November, when I moved to Beijing."

"Our economy is developing and life is better than before," began Ditan's tai chi enthusiast. "And for those who can afford such unusual sports, perhaps the Olympics Games are affecting their exercise patterns.

"But gyms aren't so popular - it's a question of cost. We poor people have different priorities. If your salary is 25,000 Yuan a month - then maybe you'll buy a 10,000 Yuan fitness machine. Otherwise…"

Technogym is looking to white-collar professionals - aged 25-40 - for the bulk of its China business. The company has launched advertising campaigns in upscale Shanghai office buildings and has embarked on a 10-city tour of China's glitziest shopping malls.

"We want to connect with people who are younger, and who have money," Cortezzi said. "Our signature 'KENESIS' machine runs about 116,000 Yuan. It's expensive because we're committed to high-performance and hi-tech. If you don't earn 600 Euros (6,600 Yuan) a month, it's tough to join a gym."

According to Cortezzi, Technogym hopes to sell not only fitness equipment but also a 'wellness philosophy' in China.

"We're here to bring people to the gym and we're here to support local fitness entrepreneurs," she said. "People should understand that to live well you must be healthy."

Beijing has sprouted a number of health clubs large and small over the past few years, as have other cosmopolitan Chinese cities.

"We have a weight machine, and we go to a gym for ping pong," a 30-year old mother from Sichuan province said. "We don't have a treadmill, but our friends do."

China's market will challenge Technogym, however. To date, more working Chinese fantasize about kicking back than running in place.

"Some Western companies in Beijing make their employees work out," another park-goer said. "But Western style exercise is dangerous. I've read about CEOs in their 40s dying from heart attacks. If you want to run and become very strong, that's okay. But you could get injured."

Beijing's Olympic organizing committee was of a different mind when it invited Technogym to design an Olympic Village fitness center. The average Beijinger won't be allowed inside. Fortunately for Technogym, Chinese millionaires are made every day.

"We'd like to work with all of China," Cortezzi said. "But those 299 million people who can afford to join a gym and haven't - they're enough for now."


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