China sends athletes to Norway to learn ski jumping from scratch
It’s not like Bejiing.
The small town of Øyer, just outside Lillehammer, usually houses Norway's national ski jumping team.
Now, it's also the home of 22 Chinese hopefuls.
The athletes, aged between 15 and 20, have given up their careers in China and moved to Norway with the aim of making it to Beijing 2022 as ski jumpers.
The problem? They’ve never worn skis before.
China are hoping to repeat the success from Beijing 2008 when the Chinese capital hosts the Winter Olympics in 2022. They had immense success at their last Olympics on home soil, taking more medals than any other nation.
But, they are up against the clock. They have to start from scratch in many winter sports, where China simply have no tradition.
One of them is ski jumping.
Watch: Chinese athletes take first ski jump lesson in Beijing 2022 mission
Podcast: Chinese ski jumpers take first lesson as they target Beijing 2022
Podcast: Chinese ski jumpers take first lesson as they target Beijing 2022A set of athletes aged 15-20 have been given an incredible challenge. They haven’t ever even worn skis but are still hopeful of becoming international level ski jumpers. China have sent some of their most promising athletes to live in Norway to transform them into Olympians. We went behind-the-scenes on their first day on the slopes. Plus, double Olympic champion Aksel Lund Svindal joined us to tell about his longevity in the sport, injury, Lindsey Vonn, and retirement.
China and ski jumping
China have only taken part in ski jumping at two Olympic Games: a last placed finish for the men's team at Torino 2006; and Xinyue Chang, who finished 20th in the women’s competition at PyeongChang 2018.
The Chinese want more, and have asked some of the world’s most respected experts to help them out. The 22 youngsters plus their two Chinese coaches are being guided and monitored on a daily basis by Norway’s best.
The Norwegians have won more Olympic gold medals in the sport than anyone else, and have sent representatives to every Games since the sport made its first Olympic appearance at Chamonix 1924.
Clas Brede Braathen is the boss of the Norwegian ski jumping federation and is also in charge of this project.
“Some of them have physical skills which are more than good enough to be number one in the world today.
“But, (first), they need to do ski jumping.” he said.
Preparation for jumping
The target is high but the reality is low-key.
Olympic Channel cameras capture the athletes first gathering in a basement to work on their technique.
They take turns crouched down on a wheeled version of a ski jump. As it gathers speed, they spring up and crash into a mat, face first.
“Good power,” Kjetil Strandbraaten, one of the Norwegian coaches, says.
Feedback has to be simple. Most communication is translated through applications on phones.
The athletes crowd around a video screen to study where they can improve. Coach Strandbraaten goes through the footage frame-by-frame to look for improvements.
It’s essential there’s practice before they go up the slopes, but Norway’s ski jump chief Braathen says it’s difficult to know if someone is going to be a good ski jumper just from raw athleticism.
“Some of the toughest (in the gym), they have never been tough on the hill. And some others, who seemed like the most sceptical and frightened people, have been some of the toughest when it comes to the real stressful situations in the hill.”
China’s ski story
China might not have a storied history in Olympic ski events, but some ancient cave art suggest that the country has a long relationship with the sport.
According to Chinese archeologists, the paintings in the Xinjian region date back more than 10,000 years. This makes them 2,000 years older than the earliest ski artifact on record.
In the present day, winter sport is enjoying a surge of popularity in China. President Xi Jinping wants to have 300 million participants by the time Beijing 2022 starts, with teams in 109 sports.
It also means sending athletes to Norway to learn how to ski jump.
“Are you nervous?” one of the Norwegian coaches calls out as the Chinese delegation gathers at the foot of the ski jumps.
A few of the athletes nod. There’s a muted response.
The practice jump is small but it’s still a ski jump: a kicker ramp and a place to land on artificial grass.
The group meet early for a three-hour drive from their base to slope near Oslo, where a variety of smaller hills can be found next to the historic Holmenkollen ski jump that has hosted competitions since 1892.
At first, the athletes crash. A lot.
But 18-year-old former trampoline gymnast Zhai Yujia, who goes under the nickname ‘Jia Jia’, makes progress quickly.
Around an hour into the session, she lands the first jump by any female in the group.
As the Norwegian ski jumping federation’s head of development Tore Øvregård starts to cheer, she loses balance at the end of the run.
“It felt pretty good, but actually (I) regret that my landing wasn’t perfect. But it was okay, because I was really happy and it was so much fun, so I didn’t really feel the pain,” Jia Jia said.
For her, the goal is to compete at the very top level.
“My dream is to work hard and be able to compete in the Olympics.” Chinese ski jump hopeful Zhai Yujia told Olympic Channel
Landing a ski jump is a start, but it’s a long way from Olympic competition.
The hope is to see some of them in national events in Norway this winter season, and by the end of 2020, the aim is to have them competing at international level to fight for Olympic spots.
“We want to make an Olympic athlete. Hopefully, one for each gender for the 2022 Olympics,” said Braathen.
“That’s a very ambitious target, of course, but we have our best people on it. We believe in the athletes… I believe that we can make an Olympic athlete.”
Braathen wants more than just Chinese representation at the Olympics.
He wants to capture the imagination of ordinary Chinese people.
“Most important is actually that we are able to create a ski jumping culture for the Chinese people. That would be fantastic.”
“I believe that is the most valuable outcome of this project.”