New start for skating team

By Wang Zhefeng in Shanghai Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-20 0:38:02

‘More aggressive’ athletes set sights on Olympic gold

China's Fan Kexin celebrates after winning the 500 meters final during the ISU Short Track Speed Skating World Cup on December 13 in Shanghai. Photo: CFP

Every year, when winter gradually sets in over the northern hemisphere, the competition season for short track speed skaters begins.

Last weekend, over 150 skaters from 24 countries and regions gathered on the ice of the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai to compete in the ISU (International Skating Union) Short Track Speed Skating World Cup.

Short track speed skaters will compete in Seoul this week before heading to Dresden, Germany and Izmir in Turkey in February, with the season culminating in the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Moscow in March.

After the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, some athletes have either gone into their adjustment period or have retired, while many new faces have started to appear on the international stage.

"When we took part in the two World Cup games in North America, we had no idea there were so many young athletes from other countries," said Li Yan, head coach of China's ­national team of short track speed skating.

This season, even the roster of the Chinese national team has changed a great deal.

Among the 20 skaters in the current team, many are new faces.

"In a four-year cycle I believe people will get to know more young athletes," said Li.

China started to compete in the Winter Olympic Games in 1980 and got its first gold medal in 2002. To date, China has won 12 gold medals at the Winter Games, and nine have come from short track.

Li, who has been hailed as the woman who changed history in regards to China's short track, is in her third four-year cycle in which she has led China.

The 48-year-old led her team to a sweep of all the gold medals in women's events in the Vancouver Games in 2010 and won two golds, three silvers and one bronze in Sochi. She extended her contract and will be heading for Pyeongchang in 2018.

"This year, we put more focus on selecting and training athletes. We hope to let our young athletes become mature through competing in games," said Li.

"The young athletes' personal abilities and application of techniques and tactics still need to be improved."

Team with no leader

In the current team, 21-year-old Fan Kexin is turning out to be one of the most outstanding athletes.

 She broke the world record in the women's 500 meters short track in the Salt Lake City World Cup in November, which was previously held by Chinese short track great Wang Meng.

It would be too early to say the era of Wang has passed.

The 30-year-old was seriously injured in January and missed Sochi, just had the steel nails in her leg removed in November, but still said she loved to play on ice.

However, while the young new team has battled on, there is no apparent leader in the team after captain Wang's departure.

As the newest world record holder, Fan is cautious and keeps a low profile. She said she did not expect to break the world record and there was still much for her to learn.

Han Tianyu, the 18-year-old star who won silver in the men's 1,500 meters in Sochi for China, has not maintained a high competitive level this season and admitted he lacked a great deal of experience.

Wu Dajing, another star of the team who won the silver in the men's 500 meters in Sochi, also avoided saying who he thought was the leader of the men's team.

"We are a team as a whole. So every one of us has to try harder to achieve better," Wu said.

As the generation born after the 1990s who are said to be more confident and individualistic than their previous generation, these young players seem to be rather restrained.

"Now we are a very young team. And we are much more aggressive than the last cycle. Our aim is to get an Olympic gold medal," said Wu.

Apart from 23-year-old Zhou Yang, who won two gold medals in Vancouver and one in Sochi but has not competed in any games this season, no one else in the current national short track team has won Olympic gold medals.

Olympic ambition

China has a serious Olympic complex. Athletes call it an ultimate sports career goal, while sports fans see it as a sports carnival that happens every four years, and the country appreciates the opportunity to become the host.

Now Beijing has become a candidate to host the 2022 Winter Games. The only rival is Kazakhstan's Almaty.

Compared to the Summer Games, the winter version has fewer sports which can generally be divided into events on ice and snow.

Ice and snow are only naturally formed in high-altitude areas, which means people who live in warm southern areas of the northern hemisphere could be unfamiliar with winter sports.

China's sports governing body started to try to bring winter sports forward to southern cities in the late 1980s, but did not make much progress until Shanghai stepped up.

The city first held the Short Track World Cup in 2011 and for the last three years, its audience attendance has held at over 80 percent.

In the past few years, Shanghai has also held other international ­winter games such as the Cup of China ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating and the ice hockey qualifying rounds for Sochi.

Next year, it will hold the World Figure Skating Championships, the oldest and most influential game under the ISU.

In earlier years, ice events were held in natural conditions. Now, they are gradually heading indoors, making it possible for southern cities like Shanghai to develop the sports.

Shanghai now has four world leading skating stadiums and seven smaller permanent fixed ice rinks, which can cater to different events including short track, speed skating, figure skating, hockey and curling.

Other southern cities, such as Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Guangzhou, have also built indoor ice venues.

China's winter sports chief Zhao Yinggang, there are over 100 skating venues in the country, according to Xinhua. However, the promotion of winter sports is just beginning.

In Shanghai, although there was great enthusiasm for the Short Track World Cup and most people told the Global Times they loved to watch the games, almost all of them admitted they had never tried skating.

According to the official list of registered winter sports athletes in 2014, there were only about 550 people who take part in short track in China, but that figure is much higher than it was several years ago.

Posted in: Feature, Winter Sport

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