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Olympic giants China face tough medal fight

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Gold medalist Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China pose during the medal ceremony for the pair’s free skating at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul on February 8, 2020. AFP

Olympic giants China face tough medal fight

China topped the medals table at its 2008 Summer Olympics but expectations are much lower for next month’s Beijing Games as the country attempts to build a winter sports industry nearly from scratch.

China did not appear at a Winter Olympics until 1980 at Lake Placid and has hardly sparkled since, winning one gold medal – in short track speed skating – at the last Games, in South Korea’s Pyeongchang, in 2018.

Cold weather sports have not historically been popular in the country, where the prohibitive cost and relative lack of infrastructure had kept the pool of athletes small.

But a huge government-led push to promote snow and ice activities and a soaring middle class looks set to yield some results when the Games begin on February 4, and home athletes always tend to overperform at their own Olympics.

With foreign coaches drafted in to boost expertise, forecasters Gracenote expect China to win six golds at Beijing 2022 and enjoy its “best-ever Winter Olympics”.

Norway, who topped the medals table in 2018, are predicted to do so again, ahead of the Russians and Germany.

Big crisis

China set itself the goal of competing in all 109 events at Beijing 2022 – nearly double the number the country qualified for at Pyeongchang.

The country has “no experience” in one-third of them, state media said.

Underlining the challenge, winter sports official Ni Huizhong admitted to Xinhua news agency last year in unusually stark terms that the country had “clear weaknesses and disadvantages” and was facing “a big crisis” in some sports.

China will compete in at least 96 events in the Chinese capital. In some, such as men’s ice hockey, avoiding embarrassment on home soil will count as a small win.

China has had to be creative in its search to grow its small pool of winter sports athletes, including scouring martial arts schools of Buddhist monasteries.

Authorities also sent a group of teenagers with zero experience – including a former gymnast and a sprinter – to Norway in 2018 for a crash course in ski jumping in the hope of producing 2022 competitors.

China has also turned to naturalised athletes, including California natives Eileen Gu – who looks set to be the face of the Games – and ice skater Beverly Zhu.

Prestige

With an eye on the future, the country is on course to open 5,000 winter sports schools by 2025 and has set up massive training bases for athletes offering wind tunnels and virtual reality simulators.

Of China’s 13 Winter Olympic golds, 10 have come in short track speed skating.

Wu Dajing won 500m gold in 2018 and will defend his title in Beijing, while there are also hopes in the relay events.

Pairs figure skaters Sui Wenjing and Han Cong will hope to go one better than their Pyeongchang silver, while US-born freestyle skier Gu, just 18, is hotly tipped for gold.

They are under pressure from the very top, with President Xi Jinping urging athletes to “struggle bravely and strive for success”.

But medals will only be one part of what China hopes to reap from the Games.

It sees an opportunity to demonstrate its sophistication and prowess, even as the Covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic boycotts from a handful of countries over human rights concerns cast a shadow.

“By hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics [also in Beijing], China impressively demonstrated its economic development to the world,” Jung Woo Lee, sport policy researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said.

“[Now] China wants to display its cultural and technological merits to international audiences,” Lee said, noting that Winter Olympics are “more exclusive competitions where the power of more advanced and affluent Western nations prevails”.

“The staging of the Winter Olympics in their capital city can symbolically mean that China is no longer lagging behind Western democracies in terms of its international privilege,” Lee said.

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