In a continuous timeline extending from the Opium War in 1840 to the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, China was in a position of weakness globally. During that time, Western nations' growing strength and prosperity allowed them to focus more on such leisure activities as sports, and by the end of the 19th century they had revived the ancient Greek Olympic Games, and expanded them into international competition. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Western sports began entering China, and the country's early reformers and revolutionaries commented favorably on the utility of athletic competition in strengthening the nation by improving the health of its people. Motion pictures were also introduced to China about the same time, and these soon included sports films.
However, during the whole period of Chinese cinema's growth and development, the output of Chinese sports movies was very limited. Before October 1, 1949, the total number of full length feature (narrative) films produced in China was about 1,800. Of that total only about 5 could be regarded as having sports as the main theme: "Yijiao Tichuqu" 《一脚踢出去》[Kick] (aka "Tongxue zhi Ai" 《同学之爱》[Classmates' Romance], from Mingxing, written by Hong Shen and co-directed by Hong with Zhang Shichuan; "Er Dui Yi" 《二对一》[Two on One], also from Mingxing, written by Wang Ganbai, co-directed by Zhang Shichuan and Shen Xiling; "Jianmei Yundong"《健美运动》[Body Building], from the Shanghai Sound Film studio, written and directed by Dan Duyu; "Tiyu Huanghou"《体育皇后》[Queen of Sports], from the Lianhua studio, written and directed by Sun Yu; and "Po Lang"《破浪》[Breaking Waves], also Lianhua, written and directed by Guan Wenqing.
"Kick": a neglected first
"Kick," the first sports-themed Chinese feature, was shot toward the end of 1927. Compared to "Queen of Sports" (usually considered the first sports film), "Kick" had more of a commercial flavor, but is usually overlooked by film historians because it came along a bit earlier and no complete version has been found to exist. Historical Development of Chinese Film, in discussing the early work of Hong Shen, ignores the sporting element of "Kick," and dismisses it as being about "two young people from wealthy families who fall in love, break up over misunderstandings, then get back together; a story of a lovers' quarrel, nothing more." 
In addition to long being ignored by film historians, "Kick" has not even been considered a sports movie. This is due at least in part to its major flaw, the lack of integration between its two halves, with the love story paramount in the film's first half, and sports being only a minor part; in fact, the leading male character's athletic background is alluded to only briefly. The authors of History of Chinese Silent Film describe the love story as "tiresome," although they do recognize it as being the first Chinese movie to combine the themes of romance and sports.  This was not the first time it was described as a "love and sports" movie: in his 1980 memoirs, Gong Jianong called it a "sports romance film."  Although "Kick" was commercially successful, breaking Hong Shen's streak of critical successes which failed at the box office, it might have done even better (and had a more lasting reputation) if the sports aspect had been more prominent in the first half: as it was, the male lead's background as a football (soccer) star was apparently mentioned only in passing in the first half. "Kick" was also very timely: in December, 1927, the Nationalist government in Nanjing established a national sports steering committee, changing the past situation in which sports were largely the concern of local and provincial level schools; now the committee and its various subcommittees were charged with providing leadership and management of sports on a national basis.
In addition, there was an event earlier that year which had captured the interest of football fans in Shanghai: a group of foreign expatriates formed a team to play against the Huadong [East China] Soccer Team of Shanghai. Hong Shen thought this an excellent subject, and turned it into a movie co-starring Gong Jianong, who had starred in the sport in college. Footage from the actual match was cleverly integrated with the fictional game scenes, for which the directors employed six cameras to shoot the on-field action simultaneously from different angles. The original intent was to make Gong's character a striker (or forward) with an actual star of the Huadong team substituting for Gong to make the more difficult shots. But this didn't work, because while Gong had an athletic body, he was noticably shorter and less bulked-up than his stand-in. So they changed Gong's character into a goalkeeper and brought in the Huadong team's actual goalkeeper as the stand-in, shot only in long shots or from the rear. The gates had been opened earlier to let those interested watch, and as it turned out, many of those in attendance thought the cameras around the field were filming a documentary, and they were witnessing an actual game. The climactic game in "Kick" ends with the Chinese team coming from behind and winning in the last minute, which must have elicited unfeigned joy and enthusiasm from those in attendance who hadn't caught on yet.
Credits and synopsis, from references 4, 5:
Yijiao Tichuqu (1928) 一脚踢出去 (Kick)
alternate title: Tongxue zhi Ai (1928) 同学之爱 (Classmates' Romance)
Mingxing. Silent. 11 reels. Premiered June 21, 1928 at the Palace Theater in Shanghai.
Direction: Zhang Shichuan, Hong Shen. Screenplay: Hong Shen. Cinematography: Dong Keyi. Cast: Ding Ziming (Wu Ke), Gong Jianong (Zhang Cheng), Huang Junfu (Wang Xulun), Tan Zhiyuan (Wu Ke's father), Zhao Jingxia (Wu Ke's father's concubine), Gao Lihen (geology professor), Wang Mengshi (Zhao Renshou), Gu Youmin (Zhou Jian), Tang Jie (Li Sheng), Dong Xiangping (Huang Weishan), Zhang Minwu (child employee), Hu Shan (Miss C).
Young college student Wu Ke meets and falls in love with her athletic classmate Zhang Cheng. After the girl's father learns of their relationship, he expresses disapproval, because while he loves his daughter, he has always intended she would someday marry the son of his best friend, an arrangement she flatly rejects.
When the new school term begins, Zhang Cheng and Wu Ke are joyful at being together again. But another student, Zhou Jian, admires Wu Ke, and begins scheming to break them up. When Wu Ke is named to a committee planning a "people's school" to offer basic education to common people living near the campus, Zhou gets himself named to the committee so he can meet often with Wu Ke in planning. Zhang Cheng jealously reproaches Wu Ke about spending so much time with the other man, but she allays his concerns by saying "Love is like a giant tree, and with its roots so deep in the earth, what harm can come from its leaves shaking?"
When Zhou Jian decides he cannot attract Wu away from Zhang, he initiates a plot to destroy his rival, beginning with a campaign to have Zhang put in charge of fund-raising for the project. Zhang is honored to serve, but when his first fund-raiser, an art fair, doesn't bring in enough, Zhou Jian begins spreading a rumor the shortage was due to fiscal impropriety on Zhang's part. Zhang is crushed by the fair's failure and the gossip. Unable to bear seeing the boy she loves so unhappy, Wu Ke borrows 500 yuan from her father and gives it to Zhang Cheng to make up the shortage.
The "people's school" opens, and while Zhang Cheng's reputation had suffered for a time, everyone is satisfied with how many students the school attracts, most of whom are young women who had never before had educational opportunities. But now, Zhang devotes so much of his spare time to the school he sees Wu Ke less and less, and the two gradually drift apart. In addition, some of the young women students at the school are openly flirtatious around Zhang, and he soon has an overblown ego. One day, when Zhang is discussing organizing an outing with one of these women, Miss C, Wu Ke misinterprets the situation just as he had earlier, and cancels a plan she had to take Zhang to meet her father. Zhang's best friend Wang Xulun visits Wu Ke to console her, then calls upon Zhang to try getting the couple back together. Zhang Cheng not only expresses no regrets over the downward course of his romance, he has a falling out with Wang Xulun. Zhang begins dating other girls, especially Miss C, and his active social life soon runs up debts he repays by borrowing. Zhou Jian is one of his primary lenders, again with the objective of destroying Zhang's reputation and splitting him from Wu Ke.
[his preening and ego worry her]
A soccer game is scheduled in which a team of foreigners will play a university team, and Zhang Cheng is named goalkeeper for the Chinese team. On the eve of the match, Zhou Jian exerts his rights as a creditor and pressures Zhang Cheng to throw the match by letting in some goals; otherwise, he demands that Zhang repay his debt immediately. Although Zhang's school spirit and national pride prevent his doing that, he is now so distracted with worry he doesn't play his best in the first half, and lets in two goals he should have stopped. The crowd goes into an uproar and loudly jeers his poor performance. In shame, Zhang at halftime asks the coach to put in another goalkeeper. Disgusted at his incompetence and desire to quit, most of his new girl friends and even Miss C reject him and walk out. Only Wu Ke remains, loudly cheering Zhang and encouraging him to stay. Wang Xulun also goes to Zhang's side, and gives him a pep talk. Spirit and confidence restored, Zhang gives an outstanding performance, blocking every shot the opposition tries. The Chinese team rallies, at last takes the lead, and wins. Everyone cheers Zhang loudly, including Wu Ke's father, who is in attendance. Zhou Jian apologizes to Zhang and wishes Zhang and Wu all the best. Zhang and Wu are reunited, this time for good.
 Cheng, Jihua (程季华), chief editor. Zhongguo Dianying Fazhan Shi《中国电影发展史》[Historical Development of Chinese Film] v.1. Beijing: China Film Press, 2d ed., 1981, p73.
 Li, Suyuan (郦苏元) and Hu Jubin (胡菊彬). Zhongguo Wusheng Dianying Shi《中国无声电影史》[History of Chinese Silent Film]. Beijing: China Film Press, 1996, pp251-2.
 Gong, Jianong. Gong Jianong Cong Ying Huiyilu 《龚稼农从影回忆录》(Gong Jianong's Movie Memoirs). Taipei: Biographical Literature Press, 1967. v.1, p103.
 Zhongguo Wusheng Dianying Juben《中国无声电影剧本》[Chinese Silent Film Scripts]. Beijing: China Film Press, 1996. v,2, p.1531.
 Zhongguo Dianying Dadian《中国电影大典》["Encyclopaedia of Chinese Films"]. Beijing: China Film Press, 1996. v.1 (1905-1930), pp192-3.