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At Winter Games, a Hard-Bitten Chinese Coal Town Hunts for Gold

Follow our latest coverage of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

BEIJING — When Fan Kexin tensed in readiness before a women’s 500-meter speedskating race at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a small coal-mining city 860 miles away in China’s northeast held its breath.

The city, Qitaihe, has endured mine disasters, industrial closures and an exodus of young people. Yet it has also emerged as a powerhouse in short-track speedskating.

Its skaters have won an improbably large share of China’s gold medals over several Winter Olympics. They have claimed — individually or in relay teams — seven of China’s 16 golds since 2002. It now hopes for more from Fan, a 28-year-old native of Qitaihe who already helped win China’s first gold at these Games as part of its team for the short-track speedskating mixed-gender relay.

“This is a place where we focused our attention on one sport, and after we scored success, the people in this little place saw hope,” said Yang Yang, who is from Qitaihe and won China’s first gold at a Winter Olympics, in the 500-meter race in 2002. “It’s become the local culture,” Yang said in an interview while watching the Chinese skaters.

China’s growing success in global sports is sometimes presented by promoters or detractors as a top-down plan hatched and executed in Beijing. The story of Qitaihe (pronounced like “chee-thai-her”) shows another side: a powerful element of local initiative.

Competitive skating took off in Qitaihe thanks to one coal miner’s determination to spread the sport, and it has been sustained by generations of coaches and officials who have invested local pride and money in speedskating success. A banner on approach to the city reads: “Home of China’s Olympic champions.”

Many top skaters from Qitaihe come from blue-collar and farming families wagering that their children’s physical promise may open the way to sports honors and a better life. Fan’s parents have run a key-making and shoe repair shop in the city, which is in Heilongjiang Province, 125 miles from China’s border with Russia.

“Most of our athletes are the children of miners, and they have this spirit of perseverance, of being able to take hard knocks,” said Zhao Xiaobing, a deputy principal of the Qitaihe Children’s Short-track Speedskating Part-Time School. “It’s only with that spirit that they’re able to soldier on and go all out.”

Yet attitudes are changing in China, even in Qitaihe.

Coaches have struggled to persuade children and parents that the grueling training is worthwhile for a slim shot at glory. Local authorities have adapted the training programs in an effort to keep more children involved and cast a wider net for promising athletes.

“Some parents aren’t willing to send their kids — it’s so cold, conditions are so hard, why put children through that hardship?” Zhao said. “I then work on the thinking of the parents.”

Before Meng Qingyu arrived in Qitaihe in 1969, the city had no tradition of competitive skating to match its long, harsh winters. But Meng, one of millions of urban Chinese youths sent to work in fields and factories in the depths of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, brought along his ice skates and a passion for the pastime.

While working as a coal miner, Meng persuaded a nearby school to let him indulge his love of ice skating on its iced-over grounds. Officials paid attention as he won prize after prize in local competitions. They put Meng in charge of building up short-track speedskating, where athletes test their physical agility and mental composure as they careen around the track in tight packs.

By now, at least four generations of coaches and athletes in Qitaihe trace their athletic roots back to Meng. His statue, clutching a stop watch and guiding young skaters, stands in the city’s museum for its champion skaters.

Cities across northeast China experience long, icy winters, but only “Qitaihe had Coach Meng as the pioneer and as a founder,” Liu Zhiqiang, a journalist in Qitaihe who recently wrote an account of the city’s speedskating history, said in an interview.

But with fewer resources than China’s big coastal cities, Qitaihe opened its first indoor ice rink only in 2013. Earlier generations of skaters trained on outside rinks and frozen river bends, sometimes in temperatures of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-20 degrees Celsius), or they moved for better facilities in Harbin, the provincial capital.

Meng died in a traffic accident in 2006 while driving to Harbin for training.

“When I began to practice skating, I didn’t even know what it was and had never seen ice skates,” Zhao, the coach, said. “Everyone was poor back then so how many people could afford skates?”

The city’s investment in skating began to show results, first with provincial championships and then national prizes. A turning point came with Yang’s first winter golds for China, in the 500 meter and then the 1,000 meter competitions in Salt Lake City in 2002.

“Suddenly that year in our little city, 500 or 600 kids took up ice skating,” Yang said. “Everyone’s saw it as a kind of hope.”

Since then, Qitaihe has produced a stream of short-track champions, including Wang Meng, who won four golds at previous games.

A dozen schools in Qitaihe now offer speedskating training, and up to 430 children take part, the government says. It’s a pattern of local initiative seen in other Chinese sports, said Susan Brownell, a sports anthropologist at the University of Missouri–St. Louis who specializes in China and the Olympics.

“Because the central leadership places so much emphasis on sports and winning medals, at all levels in the system you see all kinds of people trying to figure out, ‘How can I work this interest to the benefit of the group I’m in charge of?’” she said. “You just see the level of drive of some of these coaches.”

Qitaihe is deep in the northeast region of China, a part of the country that has long been an industrial base and a fertile farming area. But since the 1990s, the northeast has also gone through industrial retrenchment and upheavals. In 2005, 171 miners died in Qitaihe in one of China’s worst mine disasters, and the city’s mines have suffered many smaller accidents.

In recent years, too, the government has closed many smaller mines. The city’s population shrank by a quarter in the past decade, falling to 700,000 in 2020. “The young people leave for college and then never come back,” said Liu, the journalist in Qitaihe.

Local officials hope that sports stars like Fan will help boost the city’s morale and fortunes. Her first gold at these Games came after her two previous Olympics ended in disappointments. After she won the relay gold, the Qitaihe government gave her a bonus of 1 million renminbi, or $160,000. Her mother, Nie Guiling, promised to cook Fan her favorite dish: a fry-up of potato, eggplant and green peppers.

Fan, usually phlegmatic, looked close to tears after she failed to make it through her 500-meter quarterfinal, crashing out with a Canadian competitor in a contentious final turn. Her hopes for another gold now rest on the women’s 3,000 meter relay.

“We’re all Qitaihe people,” Fan said earlier, according to China’s Southern Weekend newspaper. “I also hope that afterward more kids from Qitaihe will be able to take up my baton.”

Additional research by Liu Yi.

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