Irrelevant fitness tests inject chaos into 2020 Chinese national sporting championships

Domestic News

Perhaps most ridiculously, even athletes in sports that aren't focused on physical strength and endurance have been subjected to the new requirements.

Sun Yiwen
Chinese fencer Sūn Yīwén 孙一文. Image from Tencent Sports

A number of marquee athletes were shut out of the 2020 Chinese national championships because of their lackluster results in a fitness test mandated by the country’s sports authorities. But people have started to question whether the new policy is a performative stunt rather than an effective tool to keep Chinese players at their highest performance level when global sports events are put on hold.

As part of a broader initiative aimed at “enhancing athletes’ physical strength”, the test was first introduced by China’s General Administration of Sport (GAS) in February, when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging across the country. According to a statement released by the administration, all athletes hoping to represent China in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics have to complete a three-part physical test, consisting of more than 10 exercises such as pull-ups, bench press, and 30-meter sprint. Even worse,one of the tests is a body mass index (BMI) exam. This is a ratio of a person’s weight to their height, and can be completely irrelevant to athletic performance, depending on the sport. The directive also requires coaches for national teams to carry out tests on a monthly basis and report results to the administration.

While the statement had no mention of how the new fitness rules would affect domestic competitions, the test became an essential, yet highly controversial, part of national sporting championships in the following months, knocking a handful of elite athletes out of games despite their record-breaking performances in the athletic field that they actually compete in.

For example, during the 2020 Chinese National Swimming Championships, which kicked off on September 26 in Qingdao, Shandong Province, around 300 athletes were required to take part in a two-day physical exam composed of tests like vertical jumps and 3,000-meter runs. Among the top 16 finishers in each competition, only the eight who scored highest on their tests were allowed to progress to the next round.

The unusual situation has already resulted in some perplexing consequences, such as the eliminations (in Chinese) of Wáng Jiǎnjiāhé 王简嘉禾 and Yú Hèxīn 余贺新. Having just set a new Asia record in the women’s 1,500-metre freestyle during a preliminary match, Wang was disqualified for the final solely due to her low fitness test scores. Yu, who won the men’s 50m freestyle event at the 2018 Asian Games, also found himself in the same unfortunate position. After breaking a national record in a preliminary game, the swimmer had to sit out the final because of the fitness test.

Yesterday, during the National Fencing Championships, China’s double Olympic medallist Sūn Yīwén 孙一文, who won team silver and individual bronze at Rio 2016, finished at the 15th place (in Chinese) due to the new fitness rules. In a post-match interview, Sun said that she felt “unusually relaxed” during her game because she knew her fitness results should disqualify her from the next round. “This event really made me realize my weakness. It’s definitely an experience.”

Perhaps most ridiculously, even athletes in sports that aren’t focused on physical strength and endurance have been subjected to the new requirements. On September 17, the opening day of this year’s National Chess Championships, participants also took the test. While explaining why exercises like 1,000-meter runs and vertical jumps were relevant to the board game, Zhū Guópíng 朱国平, the chairman of China’s Chess Association, said (in Chinese), “Chess players are athletes too. They need to show athletic spirits and a positive image of sports.”

While none of the athletes who were negatively affected by the test have publicly voiced their disagreement with the new rule, their disqualifications have raised some serious eyebrows among sports fans and casual observers alike. Many argued that the policy was “lazy” and “arbitrary,” adding that it was another example of Chinese sports officials abusing their power while paying no mind to individual differences and athletes’ feelings. “I genuinely thought this was out of an Onion article. It seems like the people who made the policy truly don’t know how sports work,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese). Another one jokingly wrote, “If I start exercising hard for the test and nail it next year, I might go to the Tokyo Olympics!”