Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

An on-ice crash-course for Chinese athletes in 2022 Winter Games prep

Emily Yue makes a save at a camp for Kunlun, a Chinese team joining the Canadian Women’s Hockey League next season.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

The first time Zhao Ran stepped on the ice, it took two people to hold her up.

She says this with pride, laughing at her teammate, Zhang Miao, who admits "the first time I got on the ice, even three people couldn't keep me from falling."

But they had no choice. It was late March of this year, and they had suddenly become hockey players.

Story continues below advertisement

Both women were kayakers before coming to the arena, and their inability to skate put them in good company. Few of the people on their team, a new women's squad assembled by China's Hebei province, had so much as set foot on an ice rink. They were sprinters, long-distance runners, high jumpers, paddlers and triathletes. But after a two-day selection camp, some two dozen of them were invited to join the team, learn to skate and, if they can figure out their slap shots and team play, get a chance to be chosen by their country for the national team.

The 2022 Beijing Olympics will be the first Winter Games on Chinese soil. Like any host country, China wants medals. Unlike most, it has few qualified competitors, counting a total of just 5,000 registered athletes across all Winter Olympic sports (a single major Summer Games sport, by comparison, might count 10,000 participants), according to official numbers from Chinese state media.

And five years is nowhere near enough time to train a generation of medalists.

So China has set out on a sweeping effort to fast-track the process by refashioning summer athletes into winter Olympians. It's making roller skaters into speed skaters, cyclists into cross-country skiers, boxers into downhill skiers and gymnasts into snowboarders and figure skaters.

They're calling it "cross-border selection," with 16 cities – among them Beijing, Urumqi and Guangzhou – holding tryouts for weightlifters, kayakers, baseball players and trampolinists. To find the right stuff, officials have tested athletes for sprinting ability, upper-body strength, and measured oxygen intake and cardiopulmonary function.

After a flurry of activity this spring, they selected 338 athletes. Trainers looking for women to play hockey sought "flexibility and explosive power through simple tests such as 30-metre sprints, long jump, high jump and the like," said Zhao Ling, the Hebei team's coach, who in the early 1980s was among the first players on a female hockey team in the northern city of Harbin.

In late March, those selected joined a group of 13- to 17-year-old women brought to the Hokay Ice Centre in northeastern Beijing. Many had previously been among the most skilled in their disciplines in home cities and provinces – and though many couldn't yet skate, their arrival in Beijing at a stroke significantly expanded the roster of women's hockey players in China, which until that point counted barely 200, according to Ms. Zhao.

Story continues below advertisement

The pressure is on to achieve hockey greatness – or at least competence. China's president Xi Jinping is understood to be a hockey fan, adding to the drive for puck success.

That's part of the reason attention is being paid to women's hockey, which is seen as a less difficult playing field. The International Ice Hockey Federation already ranks Chinese women 16th in the world, compared to 37th for men.

Team China is casting a wide net to find hockey talent. It is scouring North America for ethnic Chinese players, even those whose families date back many generations in Canada.

The NHL has got in on the action, too. In mid-June former Los Angeles Kings enforcer Kevin Westgarth, now the league's vice-president of business development and international affairs, went to the Hokay Ice Centre to work with the new girls' team – and try out the Mandarin he has been practising in New York (surprisingly competent renditions of "I love China," "I love hockey," and, "Go to the hotel and bring a bottle of baijiu," the fierce Chinese white liquor).

"The girls are certainly, you could tell, driven. They have some athleticism," he said. He offered advice on how to warm up, and skated with the women in on-ice drills.

"It's a very interesting idea – having built up a whole set of skills in another sport, another realm of athletics, and put it on the ice," he said.

Story continues below advertisement

China is, of course, not the first to cast a net into summer to achieve winter sports success. Dozens of sprinters have been made into bobsledders. Speed-skaters and cyclists use sufficiently similar muscle groups that some athletes – Canada's Clara Hughes prominent among them – have won medals in both disciplines. But the list of people who have competed in both Games is short, just 139.

No similar statistics exist on the number of one-time summer athletes who became winter Olympians, but the idea is entirely logical, said John Furlong, who led the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Games.

"If you are a great athlete to start with and have a winning record, then it simplifies things somewhat. Especially in power sports. In technical sports it's a tougher road but starting with an accomplished athlete is a plus," he said.

Such a strategy "is common and practised everywhere. I've seen an Olympian make it in a new sport very quickly," he said.

The United States has conscripted roller skaters to be long-track speed skaters, including Chad Hedrick, who won Olympic gold in the 5,000 metres at the 2006 Turin Games.

"This sort of thing is especially done by cities and countries that are about to host an Olympic Games, because they're allowed to enter somebody into every sport. And a lot of times they don't really have anyone in those sports that are any good," said Bill Mallon, a renowned Olympic historian and statistician.

It's more a matter of avoiding embarrassment than chasing medal glory, he said.

China has set its sights low.

"The state has said that if our athletes can make the top 16, they will have done very well. Because we are just starting," said Li Jianhong, a wealthy property developer whose Silk Road Resort in China's far western Xinjiang region is training 50 men and women for ski jumping and nordic combined.

Mr. Li cited Michael Edwards, better known as Eddie the Eagle, who represented Britain at the Calgary Games as the first British Olympic ski jumper since 1929.

A recent film about Mr. Edwards has been an inspiration for China's newly drafted ski jumpers, he said.

"Many of our 15-year-old kids shed tears after watching," he said. "They tugged on my hand and swore that they must do this without fear of death."

Still, even if other countries have done similar "cross-border selection," there is little precedent for the scale of what China is doing, save perhaps the massive state-run selection programs pioneered by East Germany and then mimicked by Soviet states and eventually China itself.

"It's like a scientific study – 'This is the body type we need, let's see where can we find them,'" said David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

But "hockey is a steep hill to climb," Mr. Wallechinsky said. "Because there are so many different factors. It's a team sport – there's strategy and co-ordination amongst the players."

The Hebei team started from little, spending much of its first three months on the mechanics of skating. When The Globe and Mail watched a practice in mid-June, the women carved the ice with some skill, skating figure-eights around faceoff circles, although one slipped and crashed into a reporter. "Sorry, sorry!" the woman said, in English.

By that point, the team had already begun moving pucks and thinking about game play. It wasn't simple.

"I may be good at skating, but once I skate with the puck, my movement gets a bit contorted," said Gao Ziye, a former runner now on the team. "And when the coaches talk to us about strategies for working together as a team, I sometimes feel lost. I can get it on the ground – but once I'm on the ice, I get confused about where I should skate."

The team trains in the Chinese style, living together in a dormitory on the second floor of their arena. They practise on ice two hours in the morning and another three at night, ending at 11:30 p.m. In the afternoons, they drill off-ice puckhandling. Sometimes, the coaches arrange viewing sessions for NHL games.

Only Saturday afternoons and Sundays are cleared of practices, a schedule they expect to maintain for years.

Though most of the team are high-school age, they have stopped school for now. Dreams of high university-placement exam marks have been replaced by hopes that their new sport can catapult them onto the international stage.

"We are so eager to attend the 2022 Winter Olympics!" said Ms. Zhang, the former kayaker. "The whole team here all want it so badly."

Video: Female wrestler says male-dominated sport demands a thick skin (The Canadian Press)
Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨