If you had asked Wang Liqian one year ago whether he could make an appearance at the National Games of China as a competitor, the 52-year-old engineer would probably have offered a quick response: "Are you kidding me?"
But Wang not only participated in the badminton competition of the 13th National Games in Tianjin, but also won a silver medal in the men's doubles event for players aged between 50 and 64.
"I had never thought that ordinary people like me could have an opportunity to compete at the National Games, let alone win a medal, as the National Games had long been a stage exclusive for elite professional athletes," Wang told reporters after the competition. "It's really a dream come true."
Held every four years, the National Games are China's premier sporting event, and in years past were exclusively for professional athletes. In a bold move to reform the National Games, which are billed as China's mini-Olympics, the ongoing 13th edition in Tianjin opened its doors to amateur competitors.
Joining Wang at the Tianjin Games are some 8,000 non-professional competitors from all over China, and even from abroad. Most of them earned qualification after rounds of preliminaries in their home cities and provinces.
"The participation of ordinary people is a big innovation at this year's National Games, which is in line with the games concept: 'Benefit ordinary people, Make a healthy China'," said Li Yingchuan, deputy minister of the State General Administration of Sport of China (SGAS).
Amateurs are allowed to take part in 19 events, including badminton, table tennis, marathon, sports climbing, roller skating, Taichi and Chinese chess. In addition, eight events involve online competitions.
"The sports open to ordinary people cover the interests of various age groups. Many of them are really popular among the general public," Li said.
Another major change introduced to the National Games is that Chinese who have obtained foreign citizenship, foreign decedents of Chinese immigrants and Chinese citizens who are residing abroad were also allowed to compete at the Tianjin Games. According to the SGAS, eight overseas Chinese athletes have been granted entry into the Aug. 27 to Sept. 8 Games. It is the first time in the 58-year history of the event that overseas Chinese have taken part.
"Providing the opportunity for athletes from at home and abroad to compete head-to-head and to share experiences in athletic development will help improve the level of play on both sides and increase emotional ties," Li Yingchuan told a press conference.
Jay Shi, who was born in Tianjin in 1979 before immigrating to the United States at the age of nine, applied for a slot in the men's 50m air pistol event. The 38-year-old, who represented the US last year at the Rio Olympics, seemed excited about his participation in the National Games, although he failed to progress to the qualification round.
"Showing up on the National Games arena and hearing my relatives chant and cheer for me is an experience as precious as hitting a bull's eye," said Shi, who wore a uniform bearing a banner that read 'Nan Yi Li Kai', which means 'Hard to Say Goodbye,' during his competition.
"This is my last 50m pistol race. What makes it even more special is the race was held in my motherland. 'Nan Yi Li Kai' is exactly how I feel," he said. "I will always cherish this experience. I hope I can come back again to compete at the National Games in the future."
The series of changes introduced by the SGAS have won praises from academics as well.
"The National Games always has three functions - raising the level of competitive sports, scouting athletic talent and promoting sports for all," said Xu Hongfeng, a professor at Fujian Normal University's School of Physical Education and Sport Science.
"The third function has always been somewhat ignored, but this time including sports for ordinary people gives them an equal chance to participate. Therefore, it will push forward the development of sports for all," Xu added.
The National Games, which were first held in 1959, was for decades the main way for the government to appraise the work of provincial sports authorities. In the past, winning a national title can be as important as, if not more important than, winning an Olympic gold to local officials. But with the stakes so high, the National Games were overshadowed by a string of doping and match fixing scandals in recent years.
In a bid to root out the obsession with finishing first, the SGAS no longer rank localities for the medals or performance of their athletes in the National Games. It seems to have worked, as no allegations of fraud have been reported so far in this year's edition of the Games.
"The Tianjin National Games marks a milestone in China's sports development. It will be remembered as a sports festival for the masses," said Zhong Bingshu, president of the Beijing Sports Institute.