Chinese curlers already under pressure for Beijing 2022

Yanan WANG
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Wang Bingyu (C) has captained China's curling team at historic moments such as a triumph as the 2009 World Championships

Peering up at a thinned out crowd, the Chinese team waved half-heartedly after failing to reach the play-offs in the World Women's Curling Championships, a competition they won eight years ago.

The tournament, held in Beijing last week, was the latest setback for a team that is already feeling the growing weight of expectation ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China's capital.

The Chinese women finished 11th out of 12 teams in their first international competition at home -- where the government has launched a campaign to bolster excitement around winter sports -- while Canada won the title undefeated.

China aims to increase the number of people who participate in winter sports tenfold, to 300 million, by 2022.

As part of the nationwide push, 64,000 students were given free tickets to the curling matches, and the rink is open to the public this week for people to try the game, which is similar to bocce or petanque but played on ice.

"I think everyone was feeling the pressure of playing in our home arena," said captain Wang Bingyu, her voice raspy from yelling commands at the sweepers.

As captain during the team's triumph at the 2009 World Championships and bronze medal win at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- China's first Winter Olympics team medal -- Wang, 32, has orchestrated Chinese curling's most historic moments.

But this time around, she doesn't expect history to simply repeat itself.

"I know my fitness and technique are not the same as they were before," she told reporters, after China lost their last round-robin match to Russia on Thursday night.

"Before I chose to return (after three years out of international competition), I already considered that this would not be an easy path. But I hoped to give myself a chance."

- 'A high-brow sport' -

Curling, a sport first played in medieval Scotland, had no professional teams in China until 2001.

They have since risen rapidly: along with the women's 2009 world title and 2010 Olympic bronze, the men's team also finished a record fourth at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

At the Winter Asian Games in Sapporo, Japan, last month, both teams handily won gold.

The deeply strategic sport sees athletes slide heavy, circular granite stones across a long stretch of ice towards a target, with two sweepers wielding brooms rushing along in front in an attempt to influence its course without touching, or "burning," the rock.

"Curling in China is a high-brow sport," said Zhang Guihai, director of the Heilongjiang Institute of Snow and Ice Industries.

More so than skating and skiing, Zhang said, curling is about technique.

"I've always thought of curling as a confrontation with oneself," Wang said. "There are no secrets."

Wang is a dynamic player. Her hoarse shouts ring across the arena, and she shimmies in reaction to a good throw.

Like most Chinese curlers, Wang hails from the northernmost province of Heilongjiang, where aspiring skips and sweepers train at a state-financed club in frosty Harbin city.

Her name and the Chinese word for curling even share a character in common: "ice".

- Gold-medal dreams -

Despite the Chinese squad's poor standings, many spectators arrived at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium on Thursday evening with a sense of anticipation.

It was 22-year-old Chen Yangyang's first time at a curling game.

"It's a very rare opportunity to watch the Chinese team," said Chen, a third-year student at Beijing Union University.

"Right now we're still expectant, because the results so far have not been ideal."

Sun Hui, 43, has attended every championship match this week. He is an avid curler himself, having picked up the game on the streets of Vancouver while he was there watching the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"I'm of course disappointed," Sun said.

"I believe they'll improve with time."

After the first hour, the crowd thinned as Russia led 5-1. Still, one Chinese flag-bearing group cheered until the end: "Go Team China, go!"

Zhang said the squad's descent from their world championship glory is partly due to the retirement of the sport's more seasoned athletes.

"But curling remains a gold-medal event for China," he said.

The team did not earn enough points at the championships to directly qualify for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. They will instead vie for a slot during December's qualifying event in the Czech Republic.

"Watching the audience members and waving to them, I did feel some regret," said 22-year-old Wang Rui, the team's youngest member.

"I felt that I could do better."