Shining stars of 2021
The Chinese athletes who made a splash
Published: Dec 27, 2021 05:39 PM
There can be little doubt that 2021 has been a difficult year for sport in China with almost all international sporting events off the sporting calendar. That did not mean that Chinese sport had a bad year, despite 2021 following 2020's lead in most sport in the country being either off or behind closed doors, and the nation had much to celebrate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, 14th National Games of China and those international events that took place overseas.  

Here are some of the athletes that made their mark in the last year for China. 

Zhou Guanyu
Zhou Guanyu Photo: VCG

Zhou Guanyu Photo: VCG

The Shanghai-born driver started the year as a Formula 1 hopeful and ends it as a history maker by becoming China's first-ever F1 driver, signing with Alfa Romeo for the 2022 season. In between he took the Asian F3 title and led the way in the Formula 2 championship at the beginning of the season before taking third place in the final standings, after signing off from F2 with a win and second place in Abu Dhabi. Zhou's arrival in F1 will be watched with great interest at home and abroad with the only dampener that he will not get to drive at his hometown circuit in his debut season after the F1 Shanghai Grand Prix was left off the calendar for a second season running. 

Zhang Yufei
Zhang Yufei  Photo: VCG

Zhang Yufei Photo: VCG

China's Butterfly Queen had a remarkable Olympic Games, matching Sun Yang's single games medal haul as she shone in the pool in Tokyo. She won gold in an Olympic record time in the 200-meter fly final and fell just short of Margaret Macneil in the 100-meter fly but most impressive was her part in the women's relay team. Despite only being told that she was in the team after her 200-meter gold swim but she did it all again inside an hour.  

"Originally, I had one gold and one silver in my mind, to be honest, so to win four medals was truly a surprise," Zhang said of her Olympics. 

"My mum told me the display cabinet is almost full now and she's planning to buy new cabinets for more medals," she added ahead of the worlds, where she went on to win more medals. Zhang also dominated at the National Games.   

Quan Hongchan
Quan Hongchan Photo: VCG

Quan Hongchan Photo: VCG

The youngest member of the Chinese delegation for the Tokyo Games, the teenager became a household name for her gold medal winning performance from the 10-meter platform and her unassuming ways outside of the pool. The 14-year-old was rewarded with some time off in which she visited the zoo and a theme park - two of her stated ambitions - before proving her prowess from the platform again at the National Games where she helped Guangdong Province to gold. The Chinese public's love affair with Quan was sealed when it was revealed that her family had turned down millions of yuan in prize money and a new home to keep their feet on the ground, though they did ask that the legions of fans stop visiting their home village trying to catch a glimpse of the youngster. 

Su Bingtian
Su Bingtian  Photo: VCG

Su Bingtian Photo: VCG

What a year for the sprinter who entered the 100-meter final at the Olympics as the fastest qualifier after running a lifetime best 9.83 seconds in the semis. Asia's fastest man could not quite match his feat in the showpiece but he proved his worth in getting there and then helped China to a national record in the men's 4x100 meters where they finished fourth. That could yet be bumped up to a bronze after a failed drugs test from Britain's CJ Ujah but Su made sure he had some medals at the National Games where he won the 100 meters. The university associate professor even beat one of his students in the final. Su has not decided on if he will compete at Paris 2024 but his late career surge means anything is ­possible. 

Zhang Weili
Zhang Weili   Photo: VCG

Zhang Weili Photo: VCG

It was a tough year for China's premier UFC fighter as she saw her 21-fight win streak end with a stunning headkick knockout from Rose Namajunas in Florida in April. 

"After the first fight, when it ended that fast, the grief I felt inside was almost unbearable," Zhang said of that defeat, which also meant Namajunas became the only woman to win back a belt.  

"Think about it, we went to a place that far and brought the whole team then the fight ended as soon as it started. It was agony. It was still painful after we got back. It felt then I could be alright at one moment, like, it is what it is. Then sometimes I'd think about it again and it still hurts, I still struggle to accept it." 

Zhang and Namajunas ran it back in November at Madison Square ­Garden in New York and it was a much better showing from the ­Chinese fighter even if it ended with the American's arm being raised. It went all five rounds and the decision went to the judges. 

"Magnum" said that she agreed with the judges in an interview with Migu. 

"I think yes, I agree with [the decision]. Because I did have cardio issues in the last round. It came down to the last round to determine a winner. This was very important," she said. 

More importantly she said that she is aiming for two fights next year, first up one with Carla Esparza before a trilogy fight with the strawweight champion as she looks to become the second woman to win back her belt. 

"I want to fight Carla, but now we have to see if the UFC would arrange it. I just saw [Esparza] said she wants to fight in May because she is getting married in May and she wants to fight before that. So we have to see about the timing." 

"Yes, absolutely you will [see a third fight with Namajunas]," she said. "Should be next year, end of next year." 

Gu Ailing
 Gu Ailing   Photo: VCG

Gu Ailing Photo: VCG

Since swapping the US for China, the teenager has gone from strength to strength on the slopes and 2021 has shown why she is so tipped to star at the Beijing Olympics early next year. The belief that Gu, who is known as Eileen in the US where she was born and raised, could win gold in both the halfpipe and slopestyle free ski events at the Winter Games and it is easy to see why she is held in such esteem. Earlier this month the 18-year-old became the first woman to land a double cork 1440 in competition on her way to winning at the Big Air World Cup in Colorado. 

"The boys were so inspiring out here throwing absolutely insane tricks, so I really wanted to represent the women as well and kind of step it up to the next level," she said. That next level has seen her end the year with podiums in three different events at the Dew Tour.  

It capped off a fine 2021 for the skier, with golds at the X Games and world championships before adding more titles as the year wound down. 

"The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mom was born, during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love," Gu wrote on Instagram. "If I can help to inspire one young girl to break a boundary, my wishes will have come true."