Main­land’s curlers hope for Win­ter Olympic sweep

The China Post - - SPORTS - BY TOM HAN­COCK

When Liu Jinli first heard the soft rum­ble of curl­ing stones slip­ping over Chi­nese ice a decade ago, the sport was vir­tu­ally un­known in the coun­try.

But a few years later she won world cham­pi­onship gold with China’s na­tional curl­ing team, se­cur­ing Bei­jing’s place as a ma­jor power in the sport first played in me­dieval Scot­land.

China’s rapid rise up the curl­ing ranks is part of a wider growth in win­ter sports pro­moted by the coun­try’s author­i­ties as Bei­jing pur­sued its suc­cess­ful bid to host the 2022 Olympics.

China only set­tled on an of­fi­cial name for curl­ing — “ice ket­tle” — in 1995, and had no pro­fes­sional teams un­til 2001.

Tak­ing up the game as a teenager in the north­east­ern city of Harbin, Liu said the play­ers “used to make our own footwear.”

“At the very be­gin­ning, we would buy plas­tic shop­ping bags and put them over our shoes be­fore go­ing out on the ice,” she said. “We had about two brooms for ev­ery 10 peo­ple.”

Now, with the fi­nan­cial back­ing of China’s Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sports, the 26-year-old and her team­mates train full time through­out the year.

In sum­mer they re­treat to the sea­side re­sort of Qin­huang­dao, some 270 kilo­me­ters (170 miles) from Bei­jing, to build their strength with a type of tough gym­nas­tics called cal­is­then­ics.

“Curl­ing is a gen­tle sport. It’s changed my life,” said Liu af­ter gri­mac­ing her way through an af­ter­noon weightlift­ing ses­sion un­der the watch­ful eye of coach Zhang Wei.

“I think the sport has re­ally de­vel­oped quickly ... there has been a great leap,” said Zhang, a for­mer ice hockey player who 20 years ago be­came the first Chi- nese curl­ing coach, as he looked on with an icy ex­pres­sion.

‘Five gold flow­ers’

Games sim­i­lar to ice hockey were played in China as early as the 17th cen­tury, but other win­ter sports are rel­a­tively new to the coun­try.

China won its first Win­ter Olympic medals in 1992 and has since racked up 12 golds.

Curl­ing got an un­likely start in China in the mid-1990s thanks to Ja­panese in­vestors seek­ing to profit from their neigh­bor’s in­creas­ingly open econ­omy.

An of­fi­cial from Ja­pan’s snowy north­ern is­land of Hokkaido sug­gested the two coun­tries “jointly de­velop the sport of curl­ing in China,” ac­cord­ing to the China sports ad­min­is­tra­tion web­site.

In a cold class­room in Harbin in 1995, coach Zhang re­called, Ja­panese curlers taught China’s first- ever class on the sport’s com­bi­na­tion of pre­cise stone throw­ing and tac­ti­cal sweep­ing.

The deeply strate­gic sport sees ath­letes “throw,” or slide, heavy, cir­cu­lar gran­ite stones across a long stretch of ice to­wards a tar- get, with two sweep­ers wield­ing brooms rush­ing along the stone’s path in an at­tempt to in­flu­ence its track with­out touch­ing, or “burn­ing,” the rock.

Icy na­tions such as Canada and Swe­den have long dom­i­nated the sport, which se­cured an of­fi­cial Win­ter Olympic billing at Nagano in 1998.

But within a few years of the class in Harbin, Chi­nese teams were com­pet­ing abroad, and of­fi­cials “saw that we might be able to get good re­sults in a rel­a­tively short time,” Zhang said.

Harbin city funded China’s first pro­fes­sional men’s team in 2001, hir­ing coaches from Canada to raise stan­dards, but it was the women curlers — nick­named the “five gold flow­ers” — who took the coun­try’s first world ti­tle.

With the last strike of the 2009 fi­nal, cap­tain Wang Bingyu care­fully un­leashed a per­fectly paced and tar­geted shot that knocked out two Swedish scor­ing stones, se­cured gold for China — and trig­gered a blood- cur­dling scream of vic­tory from one of her team­mates.

The men’s squad scooped a bronze at the 2010 Win­ter Olympics, and both are cur­rently ranked in the world’s top five.

Olympic Glory

Zhang said that curl­ing was “very suit­able for Asians, as Asians have flex­i­ble think­ing.” But de­spite a pop­u­la­tion of al­most 1.4 bil­lion, China is thought to have just a few hun­dred curlers, al­most no grass­roots teams, and only three venues.

Gov­ern­ment spend­ing was key to the teams’ suc­cess, he said, and in­vest­ment aimed at se­cur­ing medals is ex­pected to in­crease in the run-up to 2022.

“All the sports which China is pro­mot­ing are gov­ern­ment-spon­sored sports, there is only a very small grass­roots sports move­ment in China,” said Xu Guoqi, a Hong Kong- based pro­fes­sor and au­thor of a book on China’s Olympic move­ment.

“In ma­jor Win­ter Olympic sports like skiing, China will have trou­ble be­cause it will take ages to train the best ath­letes. But for curl­ing, I guess within a few years you can do very well if you train play­ers full time,” he added.

The next gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese curlers train at the Linx­ian Curl­ing club in Harbin, where av­er­age daily tem­per­a­tures plunge as low as mi­nus 24 de­grees Cel­sius in Jan­uary.

“Most of the fund­ing for curl­ing comes from the gov­ern­ment. No mat­ter if it’s money for train­ing, com­pe­ti­tions, coaches or play­ers, it’s the state which pro­vides a guar­an­tee,” said the school’s head Wang Jin­gang.

Con­di­tions on their frozen train­ing pitch are ba­sic, with muddy foot­prints cov­er­ing the ice, but the two dozen teenage curlers train for six hours a day.

“Curl­ing is like chess on the ice,” said youth cap­tain Zhang Ze­hong, 17, who said he hopes to “con­trib­ute to my mother­land’s ef­forts” as part of the 2022 Olympic team com­pet­ing on home ter­ri­tory.

“It tests your think­ing, and abil­ity to keep calm,” he said as the clunk of col­lid­ing stones echoed through the room.

Nearby, a ban­ner next to a large Chi­nese flag read: “Health for the Peo­ple, Glory in the Olympics.”

AFP

(Left) This pic­ture taken on July 14 shows mem­bers of a curl­ing team train­ing at a gym­na­sium in Qinghuang­dao in China’s north­ern He­bei province. (Right) This pic­ture taken on July 2 on an ice court shows mem­bers of a curl­ing team train­ing at a curl­ing club in Harbin, in China’s north­east Hei­longjiang province.

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