BEIJING (Reuters) – Four years after she was discovered by national team scouts as a junior provincial champion in the long jump and triple jump, 19-year-old Zhao Dan will this week launch herself head-first down a serpentine frozen track as a skeleton slider.
The native of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, who was one of China’s opening ceremony flagbearers for the Beijing Winter Games, is one of dozens of Olympians plucked by China from other disciplines to build a winter sports powerhouse to match its Summer Games prowess.
Like her concerned parents, Zhao was initially reluctant to sign on for the skeleton, an obscure and hazardous sport where racers lay prone on sleds that zip through an icy course at speeds of nearly 130 km per hour (81 miles per hour).
“They knew at first that I was worried about this event because it is dangerous,” Zhao told Reuters after a training session at the National Sliding Center in Yanqing, 75 km (47 miles) northwest of central Beijing.
“But later, after learning more about it, they said that you go ahead. You can decide your own future,” she said.
Roughly one-fifth of China’s 176-strong team in Beijing is made up of athletes like Zhao, new to sports that are new to China, as it invests heavily to win medals beyond speed skating, freestyle skiing, and figure skating, where it has had the most success.
Many come from parts of China with no winter sports history, such as long jumper-turned-ski jumper Peng Qingyue from subtropical Yunnan province, and heptathlete-turned-bobsledder Du Jiani from temperate Zhejiang province, near Shanghai.
All showed aptitude in other disciplines, such as ski cross competitor Ran Hongyun, 19, who was recruited from the famed Shaolin Tagou Martial Arts school in Henan province.
SNOW SPORT SHORTFALL
In February 2017, President Xi Jinping said on a visit to the Wukesong Sports Center, an Olympic hockey venue, that China’s performance at ice sports was generally better than on snow.
“It is necessary to work quickly to further strengthen our strengths and make up for the shortcomings,” he said.
The following month China’s General Sports Administration set up a programme with the express goal of boosting China’s talent pool and performance at the 2022 Games.
Authorities combed China in search of talent, staging hundreds of trials of speed, skill and agility for tens of thousands of young athletes, many from state-run sports schools specialising in gymnastics, martial arts, boxing and athletics.
China’s strategy is not unique, Britain built a handball team with athletes from other sports when London hosted the 2012 Games, but its scale is massive.
By the end of 2018, China’s Winter Olympic squads swelled to around 4,000 athletes and coaches, a number that has been pared to about 500, a China General Sports Administration spokesperson told state media last month.
“They do various different tests and in these tests you have KPIs (key performance indicators) and you try to identify that and then you make things stronger,” said China’s skeleton coach Andi Schmid, who comes from Austria.
“But our sport is not as simple like in the old days, a sprint time and then try to bring it down. No, it’s a very complex system,” he told Reuters.
In Beijing, China will compete in 104 of 109 events, 35 of them for the first time, including luge and women’s skeleton. Data analysts Nielsen Gracenote predicted China would win a record 13 medals, including a best-ever six golds, good for ninth but nothing like when it topped the table as 2008 Summer hosts.
Schmid, who joined the China team three years ago, said his sliders will have home track advantage but sought to temper expectations given their limited experience. “In particular with the ice sports you need experience. You need time. This is not something that you can learn overnight,” he said.
In training that wrapped up on Wednesday, Zhao appeared confident, clocking the fastest times in two of the six runs.
(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard and David Kirton; Editing by Tony Munroe and Christian Schmollinger)