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    Chinese Athletes Excel at Ski Mountaineering World Championships

    Tibetan teenagers take three gold medals at the world championships just a few years after the sport was introduced to China.
    Mar 10, 2023#sports

    In a historic first for China, two athletes from the Tibetan Autonomous Region won gold medals in the Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Boi Taull in the Spanish Pyrenees.

    Nineteen-year-old Yuzhen Lamu won gold in the women’s under-20 sprint race on Feb. 28.

    Then, on March 1, 17-year-old Yuzhen Cidan took China’s second gold in the under-18 vertical race — a short dash up a steep mountain slope — finishing just under a minute ahead of the second-placed Spanish racer. Three days later, she followed up with another gold in the individual event — the longest and most grueling discipline.

    Ski mountaineering is a winter endurance sport that combines cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, and ascending steep mountain slopes. It has traditionally been dominated by Europe’s Alpine nations and is a relatively new sport in China.

    Ski mountaineering will make its Olympic debut at the 2026 Winter Games in Milan, where the Chinese athletes look ready to spring a surprise. Both Cidan and Lamu have surprised watchers of the sport, with both the national coaches Jin Yubo and Andrea Gianni surprised by the results.

    “This was a very big breakthrough for China,” Jin told Sixth Tone. “Before, the gap between us and the foreign athletes was very big. The foreign competitors used to see China as a beginner and thought it would take us a very long time to improve. But now they worry about us.”

    Jin said it was the first time the two athletes had competed at the sport’s biggest stage, and the coaches weren’t sure “how they would react to the pressure.”

    While the Chinese women’s team showed superb form at the world championships, with three golds and several top 5 and top 10 finishes, the best the men managed was a sixth place, by Bu Luer.

    Neither Cidan nor Lamu started off their sporting careers as ski mountaineers. Lamu transferred from cross-country skiing, while Cidan is a former elite middle-distance runner, who only learned to ski around three years ago.

    Cidan is not the only example of a Chinese athlete switching to a winter sport and then quickly excelling at the highest level. In the Beijing Winter Olympics, former long jumper Yan Wengang won bronze in the men’s skeleton.

    “Once a Chinese athlete understands the sport, they really listen to the coach, and then work very hard,” Gianni told Sixth Tone.

    Ski mountaineering is still in its infancy in China, with only about 1,000 people having tried the sport, according to Gianni, who founded a ski mountaineering club in Beijing to help popularize the sport in the country.

    The Chinese national team, which Cidan and Lamu are part of, now trains in Europe to get used to the local snow conditions, said Jin. The snow in northern China, where temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius are the norm, is very different to the snow in Europe, where the temperatures are much milder.

    “Winter sports are a hot thing in China now,” says Jin. “There are so many places in China where you can build ski resorts — Sichuan, Tibet, Xinjiang. Soon there will be more ski mountaineers.”

    This is not the first time that Chinese winter sports athletes have surprised the world. In the Beijing Winter Olympics, China defied expectations, by finishing third in the medals table and winning gold medals in a range of sports from snowboarding to figure skating.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: Yuzhen Lamu on her way to historic gold, Feb. 28, 2023. Sportdimontagna)