Winter sports get increasingly popular among youngsters

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Middle school students practice skiing in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province in north China, on December 8, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

This winter, Kong Junbo identifies himself as a penguin. The primary school student from Yantai, a coastal city in Shandong Province in east China, is among the thousands of students who have been playing ice hockey, skiing or sledging as winter sports become an indispensable part of physical education.

"When I'm on the ice, I feel like a penguin," Junbo told China Education Daily. "Winter sports are so much fun!"

In Beijing, another youngster, Lian Jiaxiang from the Beijing Chaoyang Experimental Primary School in Chaoyang District, just finished classes for the week. It was Friday but instead of going home to enjoy the weekend, he had to stay for a training session with the school ice hockey team. But he did not complain, rather he was looking forward to it.

Jiaxing loves ice hockey and when he learned the school was going to have an ice hockey team, signed up immediately and was selected. Now the team trains every Friday.

A promise

In 2015, when China won the bid for the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, it promised to have 300 million people play winter sports, which have since been enjoying increasingly wider public participation.

A report by the National Survey Research Center at Renmin University of China in December 2020 said public understanding of the Winter Olympics has improved over the last three years. In 2019-20, 150 million people took part in winter sports, over 10 percent of the population.

In January, President Xi Jinping inspected the preparations for Beijing 2022 in the capital and neighboring Hebei Province, where the events will be held. At a subsequent meeting, he said one of the key points of the preparations is to develop winter sports and encourage more youngsters to participate.

The enthusiasm is spreading. Fushan in Yantai is among the first districts in the province to start winter sports in schools. Every school in the district needs to have at least one winter sports teacher. They are also organizing outdoor winter sports competitions such as snow football and snow-themed cultural activities for students to express their perception of winter sports through photos, paintings and speeches.

The district education and sports bureau is building venues and facilities. In 2019, Shandong got its first international standard ice hockey stadium in Fushan, built with 3 billion yuan ($460 million) of private capital.

Lin Wentao, an official from the district education and sports bureau, said all schools in the district can use the stadium and its coaching services free. "This has provided a solid foundation to develop winter sports among students," Lin said.

Soon, each school will form a winter sports team of 60 to 100 students who will train every week. Also in the pipeline is an ice hockey and short track speed skating competition.

"Popularizing winter sports in primary and middle school will improve students' physical fitness, strengthen their willpower and enlarge the competitive winter sports talent pool," Zhao Yuhao, head of the district education and sports bureau, told China Education Daily.

In Beijing, competitions have boosted winter sports among teenagers. In November 2020, a snow and ice sports competition for them was started, including ice hockey, curling, figure skating, short track speed skating and skiing.

Ice hockey was among the first winter sports that gained popularity in Beijing. Many schools now have their own ice hockey teams. The annual primary and middle school students' ice hockey league also boosted the development of the sports.

Compared with ice hockey and figure skating, short track speed skating and curling are newer. Still they are attracting an increasing number of teenagers. Du Wei, a curling referee, told People's Daily, "Curling is relatively safe and easy to learn and therefore popular in schools." Today, over 30 schools in Beijing teach curling with many offering floor curling courses.

In Jilin Province in northeast China, famous for the Rime Ice and Snow Festival it has been hosting since the early 1990s, snow is a part of life. In 2017, the local educational authorities designated the first week of the winter vacation as snow holiday when primary and middle school students play winter sports. In the 2017-18 snow season, nearly 800,000 students participated and the following year, the number increased to 1.3 million.

In late December 2020, the temperature in Changchun, capital of Jilin, dived to minus 10 degrees Celsius. But Zhong Yi, a primary school student, was undeterred. He was learning to ski at a ski resort, having made plans to do so much earlier, as he told China Education Daily.

Finding solutions

However, although winter sports are gaining popularity, there are still many obstacles hindering their development, such as the lack of sports venues.

For example, according to Li Ping, headmaster of a primary school in Hefei, Anhui Province in east China, it costs over 1.5 million yuan ($230,000) to transform a roller skating stadium into an indoor ice rink. Even the maintenance cost is a whopping 1 million yuan ($ 154,800) every year, which is astronomical for many schools.

The equipment for winter sports is also expensive. For instance, ice hockey gear costs at least 3,000 yuan ($464) for ordinary players while for the goalkeeper it is more than 10,000 yuan ($1,548).

Lack of qualified teachers is another difficulty. One solution is to engage private agencies to develop winter sports. For instance, 11 schools in Shanghai have signed contracts with Sanlin Sports Center, an organization that provides training venues and coaching services to schools. Their students have winter sports lessons at the center, which spares the schools from having to invest in winter sports venues.

Financial support from the government is also important. In Jilin, a city in the eponymous province, the government has been buying services from the private sector since 2018. Middle and private school students above fifth grade can have two free skiing lessons at a local ski resort every year.

In addition to the private sector, universities are also encouraged to help develop winter sports. For instance, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission started a program in 2014 to encourage universities and private bodies to chip in for the physical and artistic education of primary schools.

Under the program, teachers and graduate students from Beijing Sport University teach skiing and skating at a primary school in suburban Beijing.

The National Survey Research Center report indicates that there is a lot of untapped potential. So far, only 6.7 percent students have taken winter sports lessons at school and 7.1 percent taken part in extracurricular winter sports training or competition. Also, only 2 percent of parents take their children to play winter sports frequently while an overwhelming 64.6 percent never did this.

The novel coronavirus disease epidemic has also impacted winter sports. Around half of those who had played winter sports before canceled their plans during early 2020. However, with the epidemic under control at home and Beijing 2022 drawing nearer, it is anticipated that there will be fresh enthusiasm. 

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