Paralympics is like coming back home: Finnish athlete
I am a Beijinger!
Published: Mar 09, 2022 09:15 PM
Matti Sairanen of Finland competes at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games on March 6, 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Matti Sairanen

Matti Sairanen of Finland competes at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games on March 6, 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Matti Sairanen

"Wow, you speak Chinese so well!" Whenever Finnish snowboarder Matti Sairanen gets such a compliment while interacting with people at the Zhangjiakou Paralympic Village during the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, he always explains that it is because he is a Beijinger.

Sairanen, 37, represented Finland in the men's snowboard cross SB-UL on Sunday. Though he did not qualify for the final, Sairanen is still excited about attending the Beijing Winter Paralympics as he says it feels like coming back home.

"It feels like I'm a tour guide here because I'm so familiar with this place already," Sairanen said in fluent Chinese, speaking about the 20 years he spent living in China during an interview with the Global Times on Tuesday.

Eligible 'Beijinger'

Though born in Finland, over half of Sairanen's life has been spent in China due to his father's work. 

"We moved a lot since I was a child with my family. And because of that I've lived in China at least three times," Sairanen said.

His 20 years living in China, during which time he has visited numerous places such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which has given him a deep connection to the country. Yet after traveling far and wide, Sairanen, whose Chinese name is Liu Di, has the most feelings toward the capital.

Places like Sanlitun, Wudaokou and Guomao, Sairanen talked about these popular entertainment sites in extremely fluent Chinese like a real local. Getting ready to go to college, Sairanen chose to major in Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University, kicking off four years of university life in Beijing. 

"Well in fact it was six years. I failed the exams twice due to my poor studies so I had to extend two more years at the university," he said.

Although he now lives in Finland, Sairanen's experiences left a deep mark on him, including a love of Chinese food. He spoke about street food in Beijing with a great familiarity.

Mutton kebabs are his favorite. 

"Mutton kebabs are a must-have. I think all roadside snacks are very delicious, like malatang [a hot and spicy soupy dish of meat and vegetables] and the baked buns that can be commonly seen in Beijing."

Matti Sairanen  Photo: Courtesy of Matti Sairanen

Matti Sairanen Photo: Courtesy of Matti Sairanen

The snowboarder recalled his experience skiing in Beijing and praised Chinese people's enthusiasm and the speed at which they have gotten involved in winter sports.

When Sairanen first started skiing in China in 2012, he went to Nanshan Ski Resort, currently one of the best places for skiing in Beijing. 

"There were many people skiing at the time, but the situation was completely different from now."

He talked about his feelings revisiting Nanshan recently, saying that there were many more ski lovers and more professionals compared to a decade ago. 

"I think people here just learn things really fast and they have a passion for it."

Happiness and confidence

In addition to snowboarding, Sairanen enjoys many other sports. He has studied taekwondo, judo, and kung fu for years and has been skateboarding since he was young.  

"There are many skateboard groups in Beijing," he told the Global Times. "And they've done a great job in the sport over the past few years and that's impressive."

His journey at Beijing 2022 is not yet over. The men's banked slalom SB-UL, an event for athletes with upper limb impairment, scheduled for Friday, awaits him.

Sairanen lost the use of his left arm after a motorcycle accident in 2002 injured his brachial plexus, the nerves in the shoulder that carry signals from the spine to the arms and hands. After a decade, he finally chose to have his left arm amputated in Beijing in 2013.

The impairment has not affected Sairanen's love for sports. When he learned about snowboarding competitions for people with disabilities, he thought he would give it a try.

The road to attending competitions was not as easy as he first imagined, but Sairanen never considered giving up.

Making a living while training at the same time can be difficult - he coaches at two clubs, teaching skiing and taekwondo - so he doesn't have as much time to train as he would like and said he would have done better if he had trained longer. 

"But I think the most important thing is not how high my level is or what medals I can get, but that sports can bring me confidence and happiness," he noted.

Talking about his plans and life in the Paralympic Village, Sairanen said that he will continue to train over the next few days. 

"The competition venue here is very thoughtful and safe, both in terms of services and the track itself." 

After a week's stay he plans to leave for Finland to reunite with his family.