China's figure skaters on thin ice-coach Yao
After China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo collected a bronze medal in pairs figure skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and successfully defended their title at last year's world championships, their sport climbed to unprecedented popularity in China.
But Yao Bin,head coach of the national team, is still worried about figure skating's profile on China's sports landscape.
Despite the successes in international pairs competition, China's singles skaters have been unable to crack the world's upper echelon since Chen Lu won bronze at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics before being crowned world champion the following year.
"The situation is caused by several reasons, such as the lack of good backup skaters, the high cost and difficulty of the sport and the low level of coaching." said Yao. "These objective problems cannot be easily solved in a short time."
Fang Dan, currently the nation's best women's single skater, finished 20th at the 2002 world championships and 18th last year.
After winning the women's singles title at this year's national championships, Xu Binshu was touted as "the second Chen," but the 14-year-old only managed a ninth-place finish at this month's world junior championships.
"Since Xu is so young, we are not sure if she can reach the level of Chen," Yao commented.
On the men's side, veteran Li Chengjiang, who was fourth at the 2003 world championships, young Gao Song who placed sixth at this season's World Cup Finals, and Zhang Min, 11th at the 2003 worlds, are obviously not strong enough to compete against the world top skaters.
"Our men's singles are in a difficult situation as well," said Yao. "Not to mention the ice dancing, which is the weakest part of China's figure skating."
According to Yao, there are only about 100 professional figure skaters in the entire country, which is a small base from which to select a national team and good young successors.
"With the rise of Chinese people's living standards, the number of figure skating fans is also on the rise, but they are only fans, not participants," said Yao.
"Although figure skating clubs in Beijing are becoming more popular, there are still too few parents who want to send their children for professional training."
The situation is even worse in northeast China, where the weather is much more suitable for skating.
"The number of natural ice rinks in northeast China has declined in recent years, and since the cost of indoor rinks is much higher, people have left the sport."
Figure skating is often called "sport for the rich" in the western countries. "That's another reason why Chinese people pull away from it," Yao added.
Eyeing the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, Yao said pairs could be China's only realistic chance for a medal.
"I hope the situation improves by that time for all our skaters," he said.
(China Daily 03/12/2004 page15)