SHANGHAI – She was China’s first Winter Games gold medalist, a two-time Olympic champion and regarded as one of the finest short-track speedskaters of all time.
Few know better than Yang Yang what it takes to succeed at the pinnacle of sport.
Now retired, the 42-year-old is harnessing that know-how to help China, already a force in the Summer Olympics, replicate that success on the snow and ice.
There is no time to waste — Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics and embarrassment on home soil is unthinkable.
“Definitely, winter sports is not very big in China. There used to be only two provinces that played winter sports, in the northeast of China,” Yang told AFP in Shanghai, where snow and ice are a rarity and summers fiercely hot.
“(But) the Olympics is not only Beijing, it’s the whole of China,” added Yang, who retired from skating after the 2006 Turin Olympics.
Yang has fulfilled a decade-long dream with the temporary installation of what she said was Shanghai’s first outdoor ice rink, with the city’s Oriental Pearl Tower serving as a stunning backdrop.
Backed by private investment, it is her third rink in Shanghai, underlining her commitment to generating interest in ice sports among a broader swathe of China’s 1.4 billion population.
Yang, who won short-track gold in the 500 and 1,000 meters at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, has more than 1,000 budding athletes training in ice hockey, figure skating or speedskating.
They are age 3 and older in her program, which she started five years ago. It is beginning to bear fruit with nine of them called up to China’s junior team for short-track speedskating.
It is possible that one of her charges could represent China at Beijing 2022.
“I am the mother of two kids and I always encourage them to experience sports because I believe it is very important for kids growing up,” said Yang.
“They learn how to face challenges, they learn how to fight, they learn how to follow the rules, they learn teamwork, leadership.”
According to Yang, interest in her Shanghai club doubled as soon as Beijing was awarded the Games in 2015 — testament to the enduring pull of the Olympics.
China’s tepid performance at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics underlines how far the country — which topped the 2008 Beijing Summer Games medals table — has to go in winter sports.
China won only one gold — in short-track speed skating when Wu Dajing triumphed in the men’s 500 — and according to Yang, Chinese skaters buckled under pressure.
She hopes the hosts can show a better face in Beijing.
“For the elite sports we are going to build a bigger team and have a bigger budget,” said Yang, a member of the IOC who is closely involved in the 2022 Winter Games as chairman of the athletes’ commission.
“In 2022 our goal is to participate in all of the events.
“For the top sports we want more medals for sure because it’s a great opportunity to make heroes to promote sports and encourage more kids to skate or ski.”
Yang’s other interests include an initiative helping athletes after they finish competing.
“I skated for 23 years and almost grew up on ice,” said Yang, as children slip, slide and glide on the outdoor public skating rink, which was inspired by the one at New York’s Rockefeller Center.
“It took me a couple of years (after retiring) to find out what I want to do, what I can do,” she added with a smile.