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24th Winter Universiade opens in Harbin
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Chinese state councilor Liu Yandong declared the 2009 World Winter University Games open on Wednesday evening, reeling off the biennial event in China's northeastern Ice City.

It's the first time that China staged such a world-class winter games, a grand one only second to Winter Olympic Games, and also the third time in Asia after Sapporo of Japan in 1991 and Chonju of South Korea in 1997.

The 11-day Harbin Universiade to run through Feb. 28, the 24th edition of the Games since 1960, offers a record number of gold medals for 81 events in 12 sports, 16 of which have never been competed in China.

The Universiade also makes another record of 44 participating countries and regions across the world, featuring some 2,500 people, including more than 1,600 athletes.

For the games, all events on the ice will be staged in Harbin, a joint host city of China's first National Winter Games six decades ago, while skiing events will be co-hosted by Yabuli and Maoershan, less than 200kms away.

Hoping to better its record of six golds achieved in the 21st Universiade, China sent the biggest 359-man delegation, including 193 athletes for 69 events for all the 12 sports.

The pairs figure skaters Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao became the best choice to ignite the cauldron when they reaped the historical Olympic silver medal for China in Turin following a bad fall in executing a quadruple jump.

They targeted at a sculpture in a shape of number 24 with the torch, jetted out 24 flaring arrows to light a "snow ball" in front, before a curling skip pushed the rock to gear up the ball to set the flame to the cauldron.

Before the ceremony, the flame has been relayed by 600 torchbearers in 60 days for a distance of 2009 kilometers through six cities in the northeastern Heilongjiang province with Harbin as the capital city.

Carrying the torch before Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao were a trio of retired star speed skaters who all made the first for China in winter sports.

Luo Zhihuan, 69, is the first world champion in China, Xue Ruihong sets China's first world record in women's speed skating, and Yang Yang is sure to be remembered as the first Olympic champion when her double victories in Salt Lake City ended China's title drought in Winter Olympics in 2002.

Chinese athlete Wang Fei and referee Wang Shi'an made the universiade oath on behalf of all athletes and officials, vowing to keep the competition fair and clean.

The Wednesday's ceremony caps four years of hard work that has reshaped Harbin and made a seal on a possible first choice city in China to bid for even larger winter sports games in the future.

According to the organizers, a total of 3.1 billion yuan (some 430 million US dollars) has been invested to build or upgrade the sport facilities.

Fifty-one sports and accommodating facilities for the biennial games have completed constructing and renovating by the end of November, 2008. Among them, skating rinks, skiing courses and transportation networks have all been upgraded.

George Killian, president of the International University Sports Federation (FISU) said that "I was amazed to see the great progress of the city over the years and I believe Harbin is fully competent to hold a best-ever Universiade."

FISU supervisor to the universiade, Milan Augustin, said that "the venue here (Maoershan) is very beautiful, nice and amazing. It meet all the international standards and you can even organize world championships."

For the four-chapter ceremony only, some 1,700 students from 26 universities and colleges in China, Chinese Hong Kong, Chinese Macao and Chinese Taipei have been gathered up for a series of performances that combined heart-pounding music, splendid lighting effects and cutting edge technology.

Figure skating world champions Pang Qing and Tong Jian, both were born and raised in Heilongjiang, danced on the ice to the thrilling high pitch of Russian tenor Vitas.

"Amid snow flying down, we're telling the world, we're young, we're strong!" With the chorus of 10 college singers, the ceremony concluded in the universiade anthem, while mascot "Dong Dong" smile everywhere to welcome friends from all over the world.

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