Four-ward momentum

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With four gold medals and plenty more to cheer about, China's short-track speed skating team has thrown down the gauntlet to international rivals with a dominating world championships campaign.

Team China athletes celebrate after winning the men's 5,000m relay title at the ISU World Short-Track Speed Skating Championships at Rotterdam Ahoy, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on Sunday. [Photo/Xinhua]

Still a work in progress, and only the second year into its rebuild, Team China has left the skating community in awe, with its full strength still yet to be shown at the next Winter Olympics. It swept four titles at the 2024 world championships over the weekend to pass its mid-term test for the 2026 Games in Italy with flying colors.

Spearheaded by young skater Sun Long's 1,500m win on Saturday — China's 100th gold at the worlds — former Olympic champion Lin Xiaojun added a second individual gold in the men's 500m on the same night, before Chinese skaters overcame strong challenges from their Dutch host and traditional powerhouse South Korea to cap the three-day event with two more golds in the 2,000m mixed and men's 5,000m relays on Sunday in Rotterdam.

The four gold-medal performances matched the country's previous best medal haul at the worlds, tying the 2016 edition, proving that the once world-beating program is on the right track with its revival project.

"We prepared thoroughly, executed our tactics well and brought out the best from every skater on the ice," Team China's head coach Zhang Jing told Xinhua at the Rotterdam Ahoy on Sunday.

"We approached our preparations for the relays as a priority and we pulled it off with solidarity, strong execution and impressive individual performances. Teamwork carried us through at the most important moment," said Zhang, who took over Team China in the summer of 2022, tasked with rebuilding the program into being a strong contender at the 2026 Olympics.

As the most decorated winter sports team in China, the short-track speed skating squad has contributed a whopping total of 12 Olympic gold medals to the country's all-time haul of 22 since its Winter Games debut in 1980.

Stagnant talent development, though, has slowed down progress since the retirement of the "golden generation", led by four-time Olympic champion Wang Meng in the early 2010s, leaving the sport's national governing body desperate to reboot the program after a fewer-than-expected two-gold haul at the team's home Olympics in 2022.

The appointment of Zhang, a former Hungarian national team coach, and the introduction of naturalized athletes, such as Lin, a former South Korean national, and the Hungarian-born brothers Sandor Liu Shaolin and Liu Shaoang, are among the radical approaches that have been adopted by the governing body to enhance medal prospects in the current Olympic cycle.

Fortunately, the annual championships have just provided the new-look Team China with a high-profile stage on which to build chemistry and hone young talent against strong opposition from the Netherlands, South Korea and Canada.

Among all the surging young speedsters in Rotterdam, China's Sun stole the show by defying long odds to prevail in the highly competitive men's 1,500m final, where South Korean duo Park Ji-won and Hwang Dae-heon were considered clear-cut favorites in all of the pre-race analysis.

Skating at a steady and solid pace, and showing extreme focus, Sun took advantage of a collision between the two Koreans, resulting in Park's fall and Hwang being penalized for a rule violation, midway through the final to claim his first world championship gold. It follows his hat-trick of wins at last month's national games in all three individual events.

Fortune favors those who prepare, Sun suggested after the race.

"I was quite lucky, but I tried my best. It's a great honor to win the 100th gold for China," Sun said of the title count, which dates back to women's legend Guo Hongru's 3,000m win at the 1989 worlds in Solihull, England.

"I believe the numbers will get even bigger, and the team will continue to improve. For us, this is just another new beginning," said the 23-year-old Jilin province native.

Following Sun's opening win, Lin, formerly known as Lim Hyo-jun before he opted to switch nationality from South Korea to represent China in 2020, cemented his strong comeback from a lengthy hiatus, due to both injury and the protracted naturalization process, by finishing first in the 500m final A to win his first individual world championship gold since 2019, when he still skated under the South Korean banner.

He backed up the win and showed his world-class ability by helping Team China defend the men's 5,000m relay title, overtaking his South Korean counterpart in the last leg, sending the capacity crowd at the Dutch rink into a frenzy.

As he crossed the finish line, the 2018 1,500m Olympic champion celebrated with a "stirring the pot" gesture, a trademark of NBA star James Harden, before taking a few victory laps draped in the Chinese national flag.

"I'm deeply grateful for the support from the Chinese fans. Our team's unity was our greatest strength," Lin wrote on his Weibo account after the event.

The 27-year-old has now distinguished himself as the only active skater to have won all individual and relay events at the worlds, emerging as the new leader of Team China in its preparation for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics.

Former members of Hungary's successful 5,000m relay squad at the 2018 Olympics, the Liu brothers, who were born to a Chinese father and Hungarian mother in Budapest, also took pride from the collective strength of the Chinese national program as they prepare for their third Olympics appearance — and their first in Chinese colors.

"I am incredibly blessed to have won gold with such an outstanding team. It's a beautiful experience to represent our father's home country and sing the national anthem together," the elder brother, Shaolin, said after the relay win.

Shaoang, the reigning 500m Olympic champion, said the best is yet to come for the new Team China.

"We've also had a great season in the World Cup series. Hopefully, we can continue to work hard and achieve greater results at the next world championships on home ice," said the 26-year-old, who, alongside his brother, has been developed by Zhang since they were little.

In 2025, the world championships will return to Beijing, which hosted the flagship event in 2012. It is set to take place at Beijing's Capital Indoor Stadium.

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