Nine-year-old Yang Binyi looked muscular in his ice hockey outfit. Through the white helmet, you can see eyes full of battling will, a flat nose and a mouth growling: “Here I come, be prepared”.
Binyi, from the Xuanhua district of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, has been practicing ice hockey for two years.
“He’s always excited to play on the ice,” said Binyi’s mom, Wang Xuehuan, adding that her son sometimes gets a little rebellious if she makes completing homework a precondition for playing hockey.
Two years ago, Wang heard that local authorities were promoting winter sports participation and that a local youth sports school was selecting primary school students from grade 2 and above for an ice hockey team.
Hoping hockey would help her son lose some weight, Wang signed him up for the team, which eventually turned out to be a big step and challenge.
“He was bigger than his peers at the time－1.4 meters and weighing about 50 kilograms,” Wang said.
In the beginning, Binyi was trained to be a defenseman.
“All the moves on the ice－skating, holding the hockey stick properly and controlling the puck－required so much strength and endurance that he sometimes wanted to quit,” Wang said.
But Binyi dropped all talk of giving up when his team began playing against others months later. He soon tasted the excitement of competition and the joy of winning, Wang said.
“During a match with a team from Shijiazhuang, another big boy skated so well that his team scored goals frequently,” Binyi said. “If I practice more, I’ll be able to skate as fast as that kid.”
To his mother’s delight, two years of playing ice hockey has improved her son’s ability to endure hardships and face setbacks. Now he is the team’s goalie, guarding the net.
“He has also learned how to cooperate with his peers in a team,” she said. “Thanks to the games, he is much healthier now.”
For Binyi, the experience has given him a new ambition.
“I want to keep playing, and maybe I can become a professional player when I grow up,” he said.
The popularity of winter sports has noticeably grown all across Hebei in recent years.
The province has made winter sports a focus since 2015 after China won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Zhangjiakou, located in the north of the province, is a co-host city with Beijing. Most of the games’ snow events will be held in Zhangjiakou’s Chongli district, a mountainous area with a skiing legacy that spans decades.
Elsewhere in Hebei, however, winter sports is a new experience.
“Winter sports in Hebei basically started from ground zero,” said Zhang Zefeng, head of the provincial sports bureau. “Ice and snow activities at the grassroots level was not popular, and facilities were inadequate.”
The province sees being a co-host for the Olympics as a great opportunity to make up for lost time. Since 2015, Hebei, with a population of about 76 million people, has set a goal to involve 30 million people in ice and snow sports by 2022－one-tenth of China’s grand national plan to involve 300 million people in winter sports leading up to the 2022 Games, Zhang said.
That’s why the number of competitions and training programs such as the one Binyi attends have greatly increased in recent years in Hebei. Promotion of winter sports to the public has been a key task for the province’s sports authorities.
To catch up with other Olympics hosts with sufficient winter sports facilities, Hebei has rolled out a series of measures to nurture a strong atmosphere for such sports, including encouraging schools to introduce winter sports classes and clubs, organizing various competitions and building more facilities for skating and skiing.
Zhang said the province’s sports authorities invested 20 million yuan ($3 million) this year to buy 70,000 pairs of roller skates. The skates will be handed out to students from 1,602 primary and middle schools in rural areas in December.
Additionally, about 3,000 physical education teachers have received training for skating, skiing, roller skating and other winter sports teaching, Zhang said.
The province has been organizing provincial-level winter sports games since last year. This year, the games began in August and have seen more than 2 million participants, according to the provincial sports bureau.
As of November, Hebei tops the nation’s winter sports list in several aspects, such as the number of skating resorts (195), the number of winter sports associations (176) and the number of winter sports instructors (more than 20,000), Zhang said.
During the 2020-21 snow season, it’s expected that about 22 million people in Hebei will take part in winter sports, he said. The season usually runs from November to April.
New winter sport venues－some of which were built for the 2022 Winter Games, including the National Cross-Country Skiing Center, both in Chongli district－will be put into use during the second provincial-level winter sports games, which run from August to March.
With the encouraging measures in place, Hebei, with its 11 cities and its Xiong’an New Area, has also taken steps to help winter sports flourish.
In Xingtai, in the province’s south, virtual reality devices are being used to promote skiing on tracks. According to Xingtai’s sports bureau, the city has set up 113 VR simulators to make skiing more attractive to both children and adults.
“The simulators can greatly arouse the interest of young kids to learn skiing, because it’s like playing a game,” said Peng Xiaogang, a 29-year-old ski instructor working in the city.
One of his students, He Haozhe, has improved his skiing skills since last summer by using a VR skiing simulator at a stadium.
“With my feet standing on two pedals, my hands holding two handles and my head wearing VR goggles, I can ski along the trail as long as I want,” said Haozhe, 13.
Through the goggles, he can see a three-dimensional ski slope simulating a real one.
“I can change direction by moving my head, and with the handles, I can control my speed. When meeting obstacles, I can jump in the 3D scene by pushing a button on the handles,” he said.
He said when he told his younger brother about the simulator, the boy was so envious that he wanted to try it first before learning how to ski.
Opportunity for talent
The development of winter sports in Hebei has also given winter sports practitioners more opportunities for good jobs.
Li Zhi, a 27-year-old skiing instructor at Zhangjiakou University, never thought she could get such a permanent job at a university.
She had been an athlete in college, graduating from North University of China in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, in July last year.
Zhangjiakou University is located in its namesake city, about 50 kilometers from rich ski resources in Chongli. It set up a winter sports school in 2017 for ice and snow sports training.
“I liked to go skiing during the holidays when I was a college student and had become quite skilled at skiing,” Li said, adding that she sometimes went to ski resorts in Beijing and Taiyuan, where she had worked as a temporary ski instructor.
She has also obtained certificates for professional skiing and ski judging.
“Thanks to those experiences, the university recruited me because I am good at things that are urgently needed right now,” Li said.
Since September, she has been busy teaching cross-country skiing for the second provincial-level games.
“We will compete with other teams in Hebei in December at the National Cross-Country Skiing Center in Chongli,” she said. “I am very excited and proud to use the venue.”
Zhang Zefeng, head of the provincial sports bureau, said the series of competitions and training programs “will heat up for the 2022 Winter Olympics and elevate winter sports development in our province”.