Sweeping into China's mainstream
Wang Rui (left) and Liu Jinli sweep during Team China's 11-4 victory over South Korea in the final of last month's Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. [Photo/VCG]
Beijing is embracing the opportunity to host the 2017 World Women's Curling Championship as a learning curve on the road to welcoming the world at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Often called "chess on ice", curling has long been popular in powerhouse winter-sports nations like Canada and Sweden, but remains new in China due to low exposure and lack of facilities.
The women's championship, which runs March 18-26 at the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing, provides a timely window for the sport to engage more fans with its unique combination of strategy, precision and teamwork.
"The 2022 Winter Olympics are approaching so we are facing a tough challenge to raise the public perception of curling while preparing our own technical and operational staff for the Games," said Shao Xiaojun, secretary-general of the tournament organizing committee.
"The Worlds just came in the right time as a great occasion for us to catch up."
As the last event offering qualifying points for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the championship features the top 12 international teams in a round-robin competition, including host China, global giant Canada and defending champion Switzerland.
Team China, skipped by veteran Wang Bingyu, currently ranks No 10 in the world and expects to contend for a podium finish to qualify for Pyeongchang after its recent victory at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan.
"Our team has experienced some ups and downs over the years but still received support from our loyal fans, who never forgot us," said Wang, who skipped China to its first and only world title in 2009.
"We are motivated by them to continue to work hard and hopefully perform well at home."
Team China opens against Canada on Saturday and faces Switzerland on Sunday.
Chinese curlers aren't the only ones honing their skills ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Foreign experts have been recruited to instruct in everything from ice-making to equipment maintenance.
The organizing committee selected 12 local officials to observe and learn from Hans Wuthrich, a Canadian with 40 years experience in a wide range of curling-related skills, including ice grooming, stone maintenance and venue humidity and temperature control.
And 32 domestic referees will be involved in officiating during the tournament, alongside staff from the World Curling Federation.
"We have tried to adopt Olympic standards in the organization and technical support for this event as an exercise for our staff to improve before 2022," said Shao.
To further promote the sport among the public, the organizing committee is distributing 64,000 free tickets for the championship.
All four ice sheets for the competition will be maintained for several days after the event for the public to experience the game.
Still, it will take time before China embraces the sport to the same degree as Canada, said Wuthrich.
"It's a game in which you need to be both fit and smart," said the 60-year-old.
"You have to be able to adjust to different things. It's an interesting game when you are into it.
"It's about skills and mental toughness. Frankly, people here need to work with experienced experts who can help them put the sport into the mainstream."