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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

President Ma Stumps For Bikes and Fitness: Taiwan Sports Island?

As part of his campaign stump speech, Taiwan's reluctant president, Ma Ying-jiu, has made a vow to transform Taiwan into a "Sport's Island".

First, the phrasing is interesting as it avoids defining Taiwan as a "nation", an idea Ma has had great difficulty grappling with during his first term in office.
Taipei, Sept. 24 (CNA) President Ma Ying-jeou said Saturday he is determined to turn Taiwan into "a sports island," where people will exercise regularly.

"It's a very important political platform that I proposed four years ago during my election campaign," Ma said in Taichung at the launch of a countrywide support group for his reelection bid.
Secondly, this pledge contradict his other education and labor policies, which actually run counter to promoting physical fitness and exercise.
At the event at Taichung Harbor Municipal Stadium, Ma said he had built or renovated 80 swimming pools in Taipei during his tenure as mayor 1998-2006. The aim was to encourage every student in the city to learn to swim and perform well in the sport, he added.

He also constructed bike paths in Taipei during that time, and since May 2008 when he took office as president, more than 500 kilometers of cycling trails have been built around the country, he said.

The president said he has seen the development of a trend in which cycling is becoming a national sport.

"The reforms must not stop," he said. "I will continue to do my best to build Taiwan into a sports island."
A critical definition needs to be made between construction and promotion. I have to admit the Ma administration has been bullish on construction... of anything: highways, residential districts, petrochemical factories, nuclear power plants, and practically anything fashioned from concrete.

This may have less to do with promoting... whatever, and more to do with the powerful construction constituency, which is widely acknowledged to be stacked with all types of dirty politics and... "extra"-legal activities from kickbacks to bid rigging.

To really promote health and fitness, the government can start with education and labor reforms.

Taiwanese children are asked to study too much, while physical education is routinely cut in favor of classroom oriented subjects. Children have precious little time to devote to learning a sport. Rather than mandate fewer classroom hours, Ma's administration has chosen to emphasize Confucian studies in schools to help promote his idea of Confucianism as the state religion. Moreover, there are fewer urban green spaces for children to use if they would like to play sports. The government owned land is far too valuable to invest in green space. Instead it has been parceled off to developers. As far as bike paths go, most children, even if they had the time, could not even get to a bike path without someone driving them.

In Taiwan fitness and leisure is the domain of the privileged. A person needs time and money. In Taiwan's modern reality these things are still not granted to everyone. For a few years things had improved with the implementation of the 5 day work week. When I first arrived in Taiwan we were still working every other Saturday. The problem is that the cost of living has been steadily rising while incomes have stagnated. People are having to work more hours for less money to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, pay for the cram schools which have been built into the education system as a necessity, and to pay on an overvalued mortgage as ordinary families compete for housing against property speculators. How many families really have the time or money to spend on biking? Not nearly enough!

When I ask students how they spent their weekends, 90% respond with the same answers: slept, studied and watched TV.

Their parents were too busy working to take them anywhere so they get the TV babysitter.

Funny how complicated these simple promises can get when tied to the larger realities of life in Taiwan.

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