Global event shows Suzhou is cool

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Ma Jingyi (3rd R, Front), Zhou Yan (2nd R, Front) and Liu Jinli (1st R, Front) of China compete during the women round robin event of curling against Japan at 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Curling Centre, Gangneung, South Korea, Feb. 17, 2018. China won 7-6. (Xinhua/Ma Ping)

China is helping sweep curling to a cooler profile and greater international prominence by bringing the inaugural World Cup series to one of the nation's warmest regions.

With late summer heat still shrouding southern Chinese cities such as Suzhou in Jiangsu province, preparations for the opening leg of the Curling World Cup are igniting great expectations as the country promotes "the roaring game" in the lead up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

With the mercury hovering at around 35 C (96 F) on Sunday afternoon, the cold air inside the Suzhou Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium refreshed every visitor while refrigeration plants ran at full capacity to maintain the playing surface, covering 1,300 square meters.

After a humidity test, ice-making crews dispatched by the World Curling Federation will begin pebbling the base surface on Wednesday, spraying it with water droplets to make five curling sheets as flat and consistent as those used at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The smooth preparation for the Suzhou event, which runs from Sept 12-16 at the 13,000-seat venue, has impressed the WCF.

"Suzhou will provide a fantastic backdrop for one of the most important competitions of the year for curlers around the world," said Jorge Vazquez, manager of the WCF World Cup series.

Launched earlier this year in Beijing, the World Cup is a revamped series with four stops in its inaugural season. After Suzhou, it heads to Omaha, Nebraska in December followed by a third leg in Jonkoping, Sweden, before concluding with a grand final in Beijing in May.

The Cup series is the product of a four-year $13.4 million partnership between the WCF and Shenzhen-based company Kingdomway, which is tasked with boosting curling's appeal to the public and media in new markets like China.

Kicking off the series in Jiangsu, a traditional cradle for China's summer Olympic athletes, has sent a strong message to the world, said Vazquez

"The statement we want to send to our new audience is that curling can be played everywhere," said the Mexican, who joined the WCF in October after managerial roles with the International Cycling Union.

"Making it happen here shows that a curling rink can be installed anywhere. It's good we can show the world that in a super warm city we can play curling at a high level."

The Suzhou leg will attract 80 curlers from 24 countries and regions to compete in three Olympic disciplines - men's, women's and mixed doubles - in round-robin group stages before finals.

Unlike other major international events where extra ends decide a tied game, the Cup series will feature a decisive single-rock shootout, where the team placing its rock closest to the button wins.

Suzhou's sports authority is committed to promoting curling in all seasons to contribute to the country's goal of involving 300 million people in ice and snow sports ahead of the 2022 Games.

The city now has seven indoor ice rinks in operation while 16 have been built or will be constructed in other areas of the province within two years, according to the Jiangsu provincial sports bureau.

Compared to high-octane winter sports, curling is less physical and more tactical, making it an attractive option for all ages and a natural choice for mass participation and the development of the sports industry in southern urban regions, said Liu Tong, deputy director of the bureau.

"It's quite new, especially in South China, so people are not familiar with it," said Liu. "But it can potentially be a game-changer as long as we promote it from the fun perspective," he said.

The China expansion underlines curling's rise from a niche game played mostly in Canada and Europe to a cool pastime embraced in some of the warmest places in the world.

Last year Saudi Arabia secured conditional membership in the WCF, along with fellow newcomers Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Las Vegas, in the heart of Nevada's Mojave desert, hosted the men's world championships in April.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, curling was the most watched sport on television in Brazil - a country that challenged powerhouse Canada in a January qualifier for a place at the men's world championships.

As an emerging power in the sport, China is looking to groom a new generation of curlers through consistent Cup drills at home to make breakthroughs at the 2022 Olympics.

"Curling is all about strategy, tactics and improvisation in real-game situations that can only be improved by competing, not just training," said Sun Yuanfu, chairman of the Chinese Curling Association.

"Hopefully, the new series will give our athletes enough tests to make them ready for 2022."

China's women's team won the world title in 2009 and the bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It only managed to finish fifth at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, for which the men's squad failed to qualify.

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