As the country grows richer, the expanding middle class appears to be only slowly growing fitter. The athletic fields at Olympic Square one recent afternoon are all but empty. Anecdotal evidence shows that more people are participating in amateur sports. Gyms, clubs and gear shops are growing in number. And the state is supporting not just future Olympians, but also fitness at the grass-roots level.
Pools in Dalian can easily be filled with 200 people at any given time, and swimmers must often wait their turn. Sun Lin, this pool’s lanky lifeguard, says: “Compared to before, fewer people come to just talk.” Across town is Bally Total Fitness, a swank gym in the heart of the financial district that opened nine years ago as a partnership between the local government and a U.S. chain. It has 27 treadmills and machines that in quality stand up to those in the West. It is mostly empty on a late afternoon, but Zhang Zifan, a marketing manager, says that it will fill up in the hours ahead. A second Bally’s has since opened. and the two gyms count about 10,000 members, up from about 4,000 four years ago, despite costing 6,000 renminbi, or $940, a year, according to Mr. Zhang. Fitness centers often average about 2,500 renminbi a year, he says.
Meanwhile, social clubs focused on sports are on the rise. Li Kai, a 26-year-old lawyer, joined the Lawyer Associate Badminton Club three years ago. At the time there were 200 members. Today, the club has 500. A Web site allows members to schedule matches to play one of China’s most popular sports.