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Originally published Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Not content just to watch, Chinese also love to play

Sports are exploding in China. There is evidence of it all over Beijing. As China becomes one of the world's great athletic nations, the trickle-down effect is palpable.

Seattle Times staff columnist

BEIJING — Hidden underneath the glitter and glamour of the Olympic Games, in the parks and the pools and the playgrounds of this capital city, real games are being played every day by real people.

Even in the middle of another thick, hot, smoggy day in Beijing, scores of teenagers emerge from the subways, just like the kids in New York do, and pour onto basketball courts on one of the busiest street corners in the city.

They will pay about $2 for the opportunity to spend the afternoon dribbling basketballs and baking in the intense summer heat.

In another part of the city, in a 1950s swimming pool at Beijing No. 4 Middle School, young people, many of them girls between 15 and 21, are playing water polo.

A generation ago, during the Cultural Revolution, girls never would have had this chance.

As practice concludes, a 17-year-old named Nicole treads water, looks at her teammates and says, "I feel very lucky to be playing water polo. I like being part of the team. These players are like sisters to me. We are a big family."

The one-child family remains the policy in China, but in the pool, on this team, Nicole is discovering sisterhood.

And in the middle of a murky green lake, in lovely, peaceful Houhai Park, the barely visible bald head of Wang Xeucheng bobs up and down, froglike, as he breaststrokes toward shore.

Sports are exploding in China. There is evidence of it all over Beijing. As China becomes one of the world's great athletic nations, the trickle-down effect is palpable.

It isn't so much that everybody wants to be NBA star Yao Ming or diver Guo Jingjing. They just want a little of that same rush of competition, a little bit of that feeling of accomplishment.

The Olympics are having an Olympian effect on the people.

"We see our people succeed at athletics and it is inspiring," says the water-polo coach at Beijing No. 4, who calls himself Coach Joe. "Now everybody likes to exercise in China. We have been influenced by the Olympics."

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A little more than 48 hours before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, Maggie Rauch and I go on a little sports romp, spending the day watching Beijing play.

We travel by taxi, subway and even rickshaw to get a feel for Beijing's increasing love of sports.

Rauch, 28, is a remarkable, adventurous woman, who came to China in May 2007, leaving her job in New York editing trade papers. She has lived in Beijing since March and is the managing editor of a new sports Web site, www.chinasportstoday.com. It is the only one of its kind in the city.

A journalism graduate from Northwestern and a former member of the New York Athletic Club's national-championship water-polo team, she is Coach Joe's goalies' coach. She also served as my interpreter.

We begin our tour inside Houhai Park and take a rickshaw around the lake to talk to the swimmers, many of them in their 60s and 70s.

Wang emerges from the lake all smiles and Buddha belly.

"I've been doing this for 10 years," says Wang, who swims this lake even in the cold of winter.

"I needed more strength. But I am still too fat," he said, patting his belly. "But I am a willing worker."

China's passion for sports is also creating a market for sports. The explosion here has tweaked the interest of every major sports league in the United States.

"The NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, everyone's trying to figure out how to get in here," Rauch says. "But they, and also internally, the people who run the sports organizations in China, say that in order to grow and become viable, they need a grass-roots development.

"And then, for each sport they need to find the Yao Ming of that sport. They want that breakthrough golfer. That breakthrough soccer player. The breakthrough football player."

In our sports tour, we don't see the next Yao Ming. But we see the affection for basketball he inspired.

Brothers Wang Xiao Gieng, 15, and Wang Zheng Giang, 16, came from Hunan Province on Wednesday to play ball in Beijing for the day.

"In the capital city there are more people playing basketball, so we came here to play against better players," Wang Xiao says. "We love the game. We watch the NBA. The NBA has been very welcoming to China.

"Sure we would like to play in the Chinese national league, or of course, the NBA. We'll see what comes, but we just love playing. And I think basketball has become a craze here."

All sports are becoming crazy here.

"China's athletes have more pressure on them than anywhere else," Wang Xiao says. "Not only because the Olympics are important to China, but because the Olympics are here. But that also means it is an opportunity for China's athletes. We want them to win, but we don't want them to feel the pressure."

Then, without a trace of irony, he boils into one sentence the task of China's favorite son in the upcoming Olympics, hurdler Liu Xiang.

"Just train hard and run fast," Wang Xiao says with a slight smile.

And then he and his brother leave the corner and enter the courts to test themselves against the capital city's players.

On a hot Wednesday before the Olympics, this city is already jumping with games.

Steve Kelley: skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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