Revitalizing a Chinese figure skating dream

Xinhua
Like many other Chinese born in the 1960s, a figure skater surnamed Bao has the popular given name of Zhenhua, literally meaning to revitalize China.
Xinhua

Like many other Chinese born in the 1960s, a figure skater surnamed Bao has the popular given name of Zhenhua, literally meaning to revitalize China.

She was lucky enough to witness the historic moment of China’s debut at the Winter Olympics 38 years ago, and what’s more, the 14-year-old girl was a part of that history. 

Bao Zhenhua and her husband, Bian Shaotang devoted themselves to the development of Chinese winter sports in the new era.

The Chinese Olympic Committee sent a delegation in February 1980 to participate the 13th Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, the United States, a few months after the COC was restored as the lawful chair of the International Olympic Committee.

This was a huge step for Chinese winter sports athletes, and Bao was among the delegation. She was not regarded as the best on singles’ performance, but the youngest girl, with the shining smile, seemed to be the most appropriate one to represent the rejuvenating nation after China launched its national reform and opening up strategy in 1978.

Bao Zhenhua (left) practices duo figure skating in preparation for a national competition in 1979. 

Bao had never competed in any international games before the 1980 Olympics.

“Everything came in a sudden,” recalled Bao, “jumping to the Olympics sounded so sweet to me. I don’t know how to describe my feelings. Nervous, excited, curious and overcautious, it’s so complicated.

“My mind was blown out. The other skaters were so good and I never saw those moves before. Disco music was very popular around the world in the 1980s. I was stirred to see the foreign athletes dance to the rhyme.”

The most impressive thing at Lake Placid was a TV interview, talking to the American legendary figure skater Peggy Gail Fleming, the 1968 Olympic champion in women’s singles.

“Peggy was a commentator with ABC. She asked me what I would do after the Olympics and I said I’d definitely skate all my life,” said Bao.

Bao finished last after the free skating, short program and prescribed movements. The tour of Lake Placid showed how large the gap was between China and the other teams. No one out of the total 28 athletes advanced to top 6.

Bao Zhenhua participated the 13th Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid in the United States in 1980. 

Born into a skiing family in northeast China’s Jilin Province, Bao had been familiar with many winter sports since childhood. 

But as a young girl, she couldn’t tell the difference between the figure skates and speed skates.

“I just knew I needed to learn dancing in figure skating and the girls always love beautiful things, so I just picked up wearing figure skates,” said Bao. “There were no big brands to choose when I was an abecedarian, the skates were hand-made by my coach, who also took to mending the skates, which were easily broken at outdoor rinks.”

In the late 1970s, there were no indoor skating rinks around China. The athletes had to train outdoors during the winter.

“We poured water onto the playground at school, and that was the rink when the water froze,” said Bao. “You can imagine how tough the ice was.”

Keeping warm is another serious problem for young skaters. “The training pictures in 1970s look funny nowadays,” Bao laughed. “We wore too much to make moves on ice, but we felt so cold if we did not wear those clothes.”

Progressing from Jilin to the national team, Bao flew quickly to the Olympics. Before she was recruited to the training camp in Japan for Lake Placid, Bao had never skated on indoor ice.

Coming back from Lake Placid, Bao was determined to skate above 15th in the ladies’ singles in the next Olympics.

“The following four years were the most difficult period of my life,” said Bao. “And the most frustrating period as well. Me and my coach, we worked so hard to get better results.”

She flew to the US and Germany for better training conditions in 1981, but got injured before the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 1982.

Like most of the athletes, she fought against her own body. She began to challenge herself to complete more difficult jumps and spins without any protection measures. 

With hundreds of falls and tumbles, she never gave up the dream of competing in her second Olympics.

At the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, Bao fell and ranked 19th. Feeling heartbroken, Bao decided to retire. 

Skating did not bring her success, but it did pair her with a beloved lifetime partner, Bian Shaotang, who has served for 10 years as the captain of China’s national ice hockey team. They got married after retiring from the national teams.

Bao and her husband moved to Japan for a college education in the 1990s but they always kept their eyes on Chinese figure skating.

She and her family drove 10 hours from Kyushu to Nagano to cheer on the Chinese rising figure skater Chen Lu at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Japan. 

Chen, coming from Jilin Province as well, won a bronze in women’s singles.

When the famous pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo were crowned with the gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics in Canada, Bao jumped for joy.

“That was another historic moment for Chinese figure skating,” said Bao. “We’d waited for this outcome for 30 years!”

After Beijing and Zhangjiakou jointly won their bid for the 2022 winter Olympics, Bao witnessed huge changes in Chinese winter sports. Many indoor rinks were built, especially in the warm areas of southern China.

Bao, together with Bian, came back to her motherland and devoted themselves to the development of Chinese winter sports in the new era. Bao has been coaching kids at a training agency in southeast China’s Fuzhou City and is impressed by people’s enthusiasm for skating. There had been no indoor rinks in Fuzhou until 2016, when two rinks were built inside shopping malls.

Bao (center) has been coaching kids at a training agency in southeast China’s Fuzhou City and is impressed by people’s enthusiasm for skating.

“The southerners, generally speaking, are not as tall and strong as the northerners, but they can be more skillful. Maybe it’s a kind of advantage in figure skating that we had not discovered before,” laughed Bao.

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