First step on the long road to greatness
Swimming, basketball and athletics were just three of the 37 summer sports featured at the Second National Youth Games that wrapped up in Shanxi province on Sunday. Five winter sports and seven combined events were also included, with more than 12,000 athletes from across China taking part. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Many of China's future Olympians get taste of glory at Shanxi showcase
The flame in the cauldron of the Second National Youth Games was extinguished on Sunday in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, but the excitement and promise showcased by some of China's best up-and-coming athletes won't soon be forgotten.
For many of them, the Games represented their first major competition, providing a dazzling platform for potential future Olympians to test themselves in 37 events for summer athletes, five for winter athletes and seven combined.
From the opening ceremony on Aug 8, a total of 12,006 competitors from 34 delegations across China took part, including 215 from Hong Kong and 53 from Macao.
Swimmer Wang Jianjiahe, a member of the national team who represented China at last month's World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, epitomized the spirit of the Youth Games.
"I'm still young and the Youth Games is a good opportunity to practice and gain more experience," said the 17-year-old, who won gold medals in the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle and a bronze in the 200m.
"This was my first and will be my last National Youth Games, so I wanted to have great results and wonderful memories."
As a member of the national team Wang was seen as a role model by most of her rivals here, but she was quick to downplay that designation.
"We are competitive rivals, but outside the swimming pool we're all friends," said Wang, who in March refreshed the Asian records in the 800 and 1500m freestyle.
"There's nothing special that sets me apart. I might be faster now, but I believe these young rivals will get faster and faster in the future."
The vast majority of athletes here were youngsters just cutting their competitive teeth, soaking up an experience that will help vault them to the next level.
Teenage tennis player Li Majun, whose ambition is to one day play on the ATP Tour, is one of the dream chasers.
"In each match I focus on finding the weak point of my opponent and adjust my tactics according to that," said the 14-year-old, who emulates mega-star Rafael Nadal's habit of lining up his water bottles in a perfect row at courtside.
"My style is very aggressive, but sometimes I'm not stable enough and I get too impulsive on the court. On the other hand, I know how to be positive and generate momentum during a match.
"Now I just want to improve step by step to achieve a great ATP ranking in the future."
Li's style is appreciated by his coach Shuai Zongyuan, who is confident the youngster has what it takes to fulfill his ambition.
"He's a very outgoing athlete who knows how to show his strength and talent," said Shuai. "He never gets cold feet during games. He has tremendous potential, and I believe he has the talent to be a world top 50 player."
The Youth Games included a handful of events that have been approved for future Olympics, including mixed doubles table tennis, which will debut at next summer's Tokyo Games.
Although China has long dominated global table tennis, mixed doubles represents a new challenge - and retired superstar Wang Liqin was on hand to witness it in Shanxi.
"We attach great importance to the mixed doubles event because it represents another potential gold medal in Tokyo next year," said Wang, who now serves as vice-chairman of the Chinese Table Tennis Association.
"The national team has a strategic plan for mixed doubles and we've been encouraging more competitions to include it. For domestic tournaments of all levels, mixed doubles is an absolute priority.
"The event also provides an alternative for players who might not be as strong or as confident in singles competition."
The Youth Games also featured sport climbing, which will be included in the Tokyo Olympic Games.
It has been developing in China for over three decades, with most of the competitive climbers emerging from grassroots clubs.
The national team, which was established in 2016, launched a large scale talent search over the past year.
"A total of 51 teams joined the climbing competitions at the National Youth Games, among which 25 are club teams. That shows the popularity and the fast development of the sport at the grassroots level," said Li Guowei, an official of the General Administration of Sport of China.
Another hugely popular addition to the Youth Games was breaking, which, along with sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing, has been provisionally approved for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
"Breaking's journey to the Olympics will be tough and there will be huge challenges for the competitors," said Danny Wang Shenjiong, a judge at the Youth Games and one of China's top breaking dancers.
"We need to prepare ourselves as early as possible to overcome the difficulties that lie ahead.
"I believe the dancers here at the Youth Games are the best of their age groups across China. This is a great opportunity for the public to get to know and embrace breaking ... and it's great motivation for Chinese b-boys and b-girls.
"We want to encourage them to pursue careers in breaking. Taking part in major events like the Youth Games should be their goal. We hope they can dance at higher and higher levels."
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