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Former Chinese soccer star pushes a radical idea: sports for fun

Gao Hong wants her country to view sports as more than a medal race.

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Jiang Jingting, a fifth-grader in green sneakers, shows little potential for Olympic glory. In China’s official mind-set of success, there’s no reason for her to play sports.

Gao Hong begs to differ.

The goalie for China’s 2004 silver-medal soccer team in Sydney, she learned in her 19-year career that athletics aren’t just about winning medals and national pride. They also help teach teamwork, discipline, and confidence. And (gasp) sports can be fun.

That is a radical concept in China, where physical-education class became a school requirement only in 1992 – and is still not always offered.

But Ms. Gao now has a growing legion of allies, parents, who also see sports as a valuable tool for fitness and for teaching important life skills.

In a year, the retired sports star and her five-person staff have visited more than 400 schools and taught hundreds of coaches their unorthodox ideas.

She’s not promoting soccer or any one sport, but PE games that cultivate teamwork and fun in elementary schools, using a curriculum designed by Right to Play (RTP), an international organization.

“Gao has been very instrumental in starting up” the program, says Wei Wei, RTP China’s national director. “Given who she is, the type of recognition she gets, she can do that very easily…. She also has the skill [and] the passion.”

While Gao’s celebrity has won her many an official’s support, the state pays little attention to this kind of curriculum.

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