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.

The national sports bureau, called the General Sports Administration (GSA), pours its resources into training top talent for international competition. Official policy since 1984 has been to encourage mass sports, too – through colleges and clubs. But progress has been slow, says Susan Brownell, a visiting professor at Beijing Sports University.

Schools, which are built around entrance exams, budget little for PE. The government requires them to spend an hour a day on physical fitness and sportsmanship. But the reality is often one PE teacher trying to corral 50 students into uninspiring activities a few times a week.

Parents who want to enroll their kids in sports are turning to private clubs and coaches, Professor Brownell says.

They’re part of a rising chorus who say China focuses too much on elite competition at the expense of PE and youth sports.

Official data show that indicators of children’s health have fallen even as PE requirements have increased, says Guoli Liang, an expert on PE in China at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.

Sports also teach children “how to work together, how to respect each other, how to respect differences, how to win and lose,” he adds. “So if they don’t participate in those, they won’t know how to deal with that.”

The games Gao teaches help a lot, says Gao Jianguo, Jingting’s PE coach. He and other teachers at Xiao Wei elementary school learned the RTP curriculum almost two years ago.

Children here used to fight a lot, but after just a few games, they virtually stopped, Mr. Gao says.

“I think [Gao Hong’s] bringing these games to China is very good,” he says. “China has never had games like these, [but] they can really change a kid.”

Gao became a believer in the real-life value of sports over the course of her career. Like her outlook on sports, her trajectory didn’t hew to Chinese norms. Instead of entering the state system from childhood until retirement, Gao didn’t join until she was 18, in 1984. After playing on provincial teams for nine years, she joined a league in Japan.

In 1995, she returned to China to start for the national team. Two Olympic silvers and a World Cup final later, Gao moved to the US in 2001, one of a few Chinese players recruited for the new Women’s United Soccer Association.

Still, the star player had low points. The biggest humiliation of her career became an unforgettable moment in women’s soccer.

Remember the 1999 World Cup finals, when America’s ecstatic Brandi Chastain tore off her shirt after scoring the winning penalty kick? Gao was the goalie who failed to block the ball.

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