Ice skating in China: a centuries-old story

With a host of Olympic figure skating podium finishes since the Lillehammer Games in 1994, particularly in the pairs, and a first gold medal in the discipline won by Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo in Vancouver in 2010, China is now gearing up for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. The country has an ice skating tradition that dates back several centuries.

Figure skating ranks third in the list of disciplines in which China has won the most medals at the Winter Games, after short track speed skating and freestyle skiing. Chen Lu was the first Chinese athlete to secure a podium finish, in the women’s competition in Lillehammer in 1994. She also became her country’s first world champion in the discipline the following year in Birmingham, and won a second Olympic bronze medal in Nagano in 1998.

It was subsequently in the pairs that China began to accumulate medals on an almost continuous basis from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games onwards, in particular thanks to the duo of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, three-time world champions (2002, 2003, 2007), Olympic bronze medallists in Salt Lake City in 2002 and then Turin in 2006, and the first Chinese figure skaters to win Olympic gold, in Vancouver in 2010.

It was at these Games in British Columbia’s largest city, at the BC Place Center, that Shen and Zhao put an end to the uninterrupted dominance of the Soviet and then Russian pairs since the 1964 Innsbruck Games. The Vancouver Games also saw Pang Qing and Tong Jian claim silver to secure a Chinese one-two finish. At the most recent Winter Games, in PyeongChang in 2018, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took the silver medal, finishing behind the German duo of Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot. 

Chen Lu / ©Getty Images

A painting dating back to the reign of the Quianlong Emperor  

Ice skating has a long history in China. Winter sports historian Lei Guo explains: “Skates appeared very early, in the 10th year of the reign of the Quianlong Emperor in 1745. We have a painting entitled ‘Games on Ice Skates’ that dates from this period, in which the skates were already highly sophisticated.” But he adds that the sport became particularly popular after the “foundation of modern China” in the 20th century, explaining that, at first, skates were too expensive to buy, meaning that most people could afford only to hire them.

Today, two of the stars of pairs figure skating in China are Cheng Peng and Yang Jin, who finished second in the 2018 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating final in December in Vancouver. They also started out by hiring their skates, or borrowing them from older athletes. They now have their own skates and take particularly good care of them, to the extent that they have developed their own secret technique for polishing their blades!

Shen Xue & Zhao Hongbo / ©Getty Images

There are high hopes for the Chinese skaters in the pairs, ice dance and men’s and women’s singles events ahead of the country’s home Winter Games in 2022. And the athletes are preparing for the event with energy and dedication. Tianze Wang, who skates in the pairs event with Motong Liu, said: “We all want to take part, and that’s without taking into account that these Games will be held in our country.” Cheng hopes that “all the athletes will put in great performances in Beijing in 2022”. Zijian Wang, who competes in the men’s singles, hopes that “we will all be able to master the most difficult moves so that we can put on the best show possible”.

In 2022, the Capital Indoor Stadium, which played host to volleyball events in 2008, will be the venue for the figure skating and short track speed skating. All of these competitions, including the figure skating team event that made its debut at Sochi 2014, will give the crowds an opportunity to admire the very best Chinese skaters and cheer them on to potential glory.

Pang Qing & Tong Jian / ©Getty Images


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