At Winter Video games, a Exhausting-Bitten Chinese language Coal City Hunts for Gold

BEIJING — When Fan Kexin tensed in readiness earlier than a ladies’s 500-meter speedskating race on the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a small coal-mining metropolis 860 miles away in China’s northeast held its breath.

Town, Qitaihe, has endured mine disasters, industrial closures and an exodus of younger individuals. But it has additionally emerged as a powerhouse in short-track speedskating.

Its skaters have gained an improbably large share of China’s gold medals over a number of Winter Olympics. They’ve claimed — individually or in relay groups — seven of China’s 16 golds since 2002. It now hopes for more from Fan, a 28-year-old native of Qitaihe who already helped win China’s first gold at these Video games as a part of its group for the short-track speedskating mixed-gender relay.

“It is a place the place we targeted our consideration on one sport, and after we scored success, the individuals on this little place noticed hope,” stated Yang Yang, who’s from Qitaihe and gained China’s first gold at a Winter Olympics, within the 500-meter race in 2002. “It’s turn into the native tradition,” Yang stated in an interview whereas watching the Chinese language skaters.

China’s rising success in international sports activities is usually offered by promoters or detractors as a top-down plan hatched and executed in Beijing. The story of Qitaihe (pronounced like “chee-thai-her”) reveals one other facet: a robust aspect of native initiative.

Aggressive skating took off in Qitaihe thanks to 1 coal miner’s dedication to unfold the game, and it has been sustained by generations of coaches and officers who’ve invested native delight and cash in speedskating success. A banner on method to town reads: “House of China’s Olympic champions.”

Many high skaters from Qitaihe come from blue-collar and farming households wagering that their youngsters’s bodily promise might open the way in which to sports activities honors and a greater life. Fan’s mother and father have run a key-making and shoe repair shop within the metropolis, which is in Heilongjiang Province, 125 miles from China’s border with Russia.

“Most of our athletes are the youngsters of miners, they usually have this spirit of perseverance, of having the ability to take arduous knocks,” stated Zhao Xiaobing, a deputy principal of the Qitaihe Youngsters’s Brief-track Speedskating Half-Time College. “It’s solely with that spirit that they’re capable of soldier on and go all out.”

But attitudes are altering in China, even in Qitaihe.

Coaches have struggled to influence youngsters and oldsters that the grueling coaching is worth it for a slim shot at glory. Native authorities have tailored the coaching applications in an effort to maintain extra youngsters concerned and solid a wider web for promising athletes.

“Some mother and father aren’t prepared to ship their children — it’s so chilly, situations are so arduous, why put youngsters by that hardship?” Zhao stated. “I then work on the pondering of the mother and father.”

Earlier than Meng Qingyu arrived in Qitaihe in 1969, town had no custom of aggressive skating to match its lengthy, harsh winters. However Meng, considered one of tens of millions of city Chinese language youths despatched to work in fields and factories within the depths of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, introduced alongside his ice skates and a ardour for the pastime.

Whereas working as a coal miner, Meng persuaded a close by faculty to let him indulge his love of ice skating on its iced-over grounds. Officers paid consideration as he gained prize after prize in native competitions. They put Meng accountable for increase short-track speedskating, the place athletes take a look at their bodily agility and psychological composure as they careen across the observe in tight packs.

By now, at the least 4 generations of coaches and athletes in Qitaihe hint their athletic roots again to Meng. His statue, clutching a stop watch and guiding younger skaters, stands within the metropolis’s museum for its champion skaters.

Cities throughout northeast China expertise lengthy, icy winters, however solely “Qitaihe had Coach Meng because the pioneer and as a founder,” Liu Zhiqiang, a journalist in Qitaihe who lately wrote an account of the city’s speedskating history, stated in an interview.

However with fewer assets than China’s massive coastal cities, Qitaihe opened its first indoor ice rink solely in 2013. Earlier generations of skaters educated on exterior rinks and frozen river bends, typically in temperatures of minus-4 levels Fahrenheit (minus-20 levels Celsius), or they moved for higher amenities in Harbin, the provincial capital.

Meng died in a site visitors accident in 2006 whereas driving to Harbin for coaching.

“After I started to observe skating, I didn’t even know what it was and had by no means seen ice skates,” Zhao, the coach, stated. “Everybody was poor again then so how many individuals may afford skates?”

Town’s funding in skating started to indicate outcomes, first with provincial championships after which nationwide prizes. A turning level got here with Yang’s first winter golds for China, within the 500 meter after which the 1,000 meter competitions in Salt Lake Metropolis in 2002.

“All of a sudden that 12 months in our little metropolis, 500 or 600 children took up ice skating,” Yang stated. “Everybody’s noticed it as a type of hope.”

Since then, Qitaihe has produced a stream of short-track champions, together with Wang Meng, who won four golds at earlier video games.

A dozen colleges in Qitaihe now supply speedskating coaching, and as much as 430 youngsters participate, the government says. It’s a sample of native initiative seen in different Chinese language sports activities, stated Susan Brownell, a sports activities anthropologist on the College of Missouri–St. Louis who makes a speciality of China and the Olympics.

“As a result of the central management locations a lot emphasis on sports activities and profitable medals, in any respect ranges within the system you see every kind of individuals attempting to determine, ‘How can I work this curiosity to the good thing about the group I’m accountable for?’” she stated. “You simply see the extent of drive of a few of these coaches.”

Qitaihe is deep within the northeast area of China, part of the nation that has lengthy been an industrial base and a fertile farming space. However for the reason that Nineteen Nineties, the northeast has additionally gone by industrial retrenchment and upheavals. In 2005, 171 miners died in Qitaihe in considered one of China’s worst mine disasters, and town’s mines have suffered many smaller accidents.

Lately, too, the federal government has closed many smaller mines. Town’s inhabitants shrank by a quarter prior to now decade, falling to 700,000 in 2020. “The younger individuals depart for faculty after which by no means come again,” stated Liu, the journalist in Qitaihe.

Native officers hope that sports activities stars like Fan will assist increase town’s morale and fortunes. Her first gold at these Video games got here after her two earlier Olympics led to disappointments. After she gained the relay gold, the Qitaihe authorities gave her a bonus of 1 million renminbi, or $160,000. Her mom, Nie Guiling, promised to cook dinner Fan her favorite dish: a fry-up of potato, eggplant and inexperienced peppers.

Fan, normally phlegmatic, looked close to tears after she didn’t make it by her 500-meter quarterfinal, crashing out with a Canadian competitor in a contentious final turn. Her hopes for one more gold now relaxation on the women’s 3,000 meter relay.

“We’re all Qitaihe individuals,” Fan stated earlier, in line with China’s Southern Weekend newspaper. “I additionally hope that afterward extra children from Qitaihe will have the ability to take up my baton.”

Further analysis by Liu Yi. activities/olympics/china-speed-skating-qitaihe.html At Winter Video games, a Exhausting-Bitten Chinese language Coal City Hunts for Gold

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