Runners compete in the Great Wall marathon in 2012. The annual race is regarded as one of the most challenging in the world.

Editor’s Note: Sheng Li is the founder and chief executive of Sports Entertainment Content Activation, which represents some of China’s top athletes, including Olympic gold medalists. Li appears as a guest on this month’s episode of On China, which focuses on the power of sport in the world’s most populous nation. For air times, please click here. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

The meaning of competitive sports is changing in China

A growing urban population and middle class are seeking a better quality of life and personal well-being through sports

In 2013, more than 750,000 people participated in a running competition or marathon

More kids are embracing sport and the values it teaches

CNN  — 

Since China took part in the Olympic Games in 1984 after a three-decade absence, competitive sports have served one purpose – to build national pride.

Athletes’ victories on the global stage made us proud of the new China. The new “open” China was full of hopes, dreams and opportunities. A strong, united nation working together to build a better tomorrow was the higher calling for all of us. To serve this calling, many kids who were identified as potential elite athletes were enrolled into the government supported “sports schools.” If they trained hard and were talented enough, they would make it to represent their city, their province and then one day their country.

When there is a demand, there was also a reward. Chinese Olympic champions were well rewarded through national and local government, both in terms of compensation and social status. Lang Ping, the star of the 1984 women’s volleyball team that won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was the Michael Jordan of China.

As the son of a sports reporter, I was fortunate enough to know her when I was a kid. The fact that I knew her made me very popular at school, pretty much like telling everybody at school today that Kobe Bryant is your friend.

In 2008, China won 51 gold medals (100 medals overall) and topped the gold medal tally at the Beijing Olympic Games. After this astounding success, many started to ask what’s next?

Economic growth means that people have more options in terms of career. It is more and more difficult to find kids (and parents) who want to join the “sports school” system and aim for that one-in-a-million shot to become an Olympic gold medalist. Academic performance offers a more certain path to success. Better grades means better universities, better universities means better jobs. At least that has been (and will probably still be for a long time) the belief of many parents and teachers.

There is nothing wrong with the obsession towards winning, after all, that’s what elite competitive sports is all about but there are other emerging trends that might change the face of sports in China.

A growing urban population and middle class are seeking a better quality of life and personal well-being. In 2013, more than 750,000 people participated in a running competition or marathon, up 50 percent on 2012, according to the China Track and Field Association

In 2014, there will be 53 marathons registered at the China Track and Field Association and this number is projected to grow at least at 20 percent annually. Compared to the 200 marathons held each year in Japan, China still has a long way to go but there is a new enthusiasm for sport at the grassroots level.

However, we also see that more kids (and parents) are embracing sport and the values it teaches. We operate a sports academy in Shanghai that teaches fencing, squash and Thai boxing. Through a season of sports training and competition, we help kids to build confidence, work in teams and develop leadership skills.

These are the qualities that will help them to secure that better future over and beyond their academic performance. The Chinese government and many Chinese educators are starting to see the value of sports in education. They could do more by making sports an important part of school grades.

Six years after the Beijing Olympic Games, there is another Olympic Games currently taking place in China this month – the 2nd Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing. This Games is different.

At the opening ceremony, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach urged participants to take selfies to show off their good fortune and stressed the importance of sharing, learning and making friends. Most people don’t know who won the first gold medal or how many gold medals China has won.

In today’s China, the demand for sports has gone beyond Olympic gold medals and national pride.

Sport in China: What’s wrong with winning?