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Speedsters eye skating greatness

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-06 09:27
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World Cup winners Ning Zhongyan (left) and Gao Tingyu are China's leading medal contenders in the speed skating competition at the Beijing Winter Olympics. [Photo/REUTERS]

World Cup results suggest China can challenge Dutch dominance in long-track events at Winter Games

Buoyed by a highly encouraging World Cup season, China's speed skating team is primed to steal the show on home ice in the Dutch-dominated sport at next month's Beijing Winter Olympics.

A strong competitor in the short-track version of the sport, China is bidding to expand that prowess to the longer distances at Beijing 2022, with athletes approaching the Games in confident mood following a series of World Cup wins.

After racing in all four legs of the top-level World Cup circuit in November and December, Chinese skaters returned with four gold, three silver and two bronze medals, while breaking national records four times and personal bests on 35 occasions.

"We can say that we have met the target we set beforehand (for the World Cup season)," head coach Li Yan said during a recent online interview.

"With home advantage and a solid pre-Games program, it's reasonable to expect good results from our team at the Olympics," said Li, the former coach of China's short-track squad who took over the long-track program in November.

The fruitful World Cup campaign has helped Team China secure 22 qualification quotas in 12 of the total 14 medal events in speed skating at Beijing 2022, with men's 5,000m and 10,000m the only two events not qualified yet. Still, it remains possible for the host skaters to appear in the two distances as replacements for last-minute injury-enforced withdrawals.

Speed skating's Olympic program features seven events each for men and women-500, 1,000, 1,500,5,000, mass start and team pursuit on both sides, as well as women's 3,000 and men's 10,000.

Boasting a deep talent pool, the Netherlands is far and away the most successful speed skating nation at the Olympics, winning 42 gold medals in the sport since the 1924 Games, and producing legends such as women's five-time Olympic champion Ireen Wust and men's nine-time Olympic medalist Sven Kramer.

China has won just one Olympic speed skating gold to date-Zhang Hong's women's 1,000 title at the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia.

Citing her young athletes' potential and hunger for international recognition, Li is increasingly confident that the host's speedsters can make their presence felt in Beijing.

"As a leader of the program, I hope I can help build a positive vibe within the team and maximize each athlete's potential to compete aggressively," said Li.

As China's first Olympic medalist (500 silver) in short-track at the 1992 Games, Li has carved out an even more successful career path in coaching after guiding Chinese skaters to seven short-track gold medals across three Games, from 2010-18.

Of all Li's charges, Ning Zhongyan has emerged as the biggest gold-medal hope after impressing in this season's World Cup.

"I think I've proved my competitiveness in the World Cup, where I unleashed all my strength and brought out my best at the right moment," said Ning, who claimed two gold and two silver medals from 1,000 and 1,500 races on the circuit.

Asked which event will be his main focus in Beijing, the 22-year-old mid-distance specialist revealed that he would concentrate on completing a perfect run in his opening event, the 1,500, to set the tone for the following individual and team events.

"As long as I can skate to the best of my ability, the result will take care of itself," said Ning, who spent over 20 months training domestically with the national team amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Hopefully, I can make my name known to the rest of the world with my performances in Beijing."

Joining Ning to spearhead China's charge is Olympic bronze medalist Gao Tingyu, who hopes to improve on his third-place finish in the men's 500 at the 2018 Games.

Coming off the World Cup season with a gold and a silver in the sprint event, Gao reckons that he still has room for improvement in his starting technique as he aims for a more explosive push-out at the Games.

"It's critical to start faster in this short distance. I will take care of that for sure in the final training program, but overall I can also become a better skater," said Gao, one of a small number of skaters this season to repeatedly clock sub-34-second results.

Describing the home Winter Olympics as a "once-in-a-century chance", Gao admitted this also brings extra pressure which he will attempt to "turn into motivation".

On the women's side, Chinese skaters will compete in every individual event for the first time, while a strong team sprint roster is hopeful of a podium finish.

"We have made some progress and the athletes are more confident after the World Cup races. I believe we will have good results at the Winter Olympics," said women's team coach Zhang Zhongqi.

The speed skating competition at Beijing 2022 will be staged at the newly built National Speed Skating Oval in the capital's downtown area, from Feb 5-19.

Almost all speed skating events consist of two skaters racing alongside one another, with each competitor looking to set the fastest time among all skaters in the field, not just the opponent they are racing against (save for the mass start and team pursuit events).

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