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Feature: Chinese handball referees debut in Olympic Games
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09:16, August 12, 2008

Tall, slim, middle-aged and with long black plait, it is difficult to find an eye-catching adjective to describe Liu Fengjuan and Liu Shuyong, the only and first duo of Chinese handball referees to appear on the Olympic stage.

"It was one of the most important moments in my life. We made history in our own way," said Liu Shuyong after the game between Angola and Norway on Monday, the first Olympic game ever refereed by Chinese.

"We were not nervous at all, because we had prepared for this day for a long time. President of the International Handball Association (IHA) congratulated to us right after the game."

Being the only two female referees in the Beijing Olympic handball events, the duo were highly expected by IHA president Hassan Moustafa.

Both Liu Fengjuan and Liu Shuyong started to play handball in 1984, the year when the Chinese handball team snatched a bronze medal in Los Angeles Games. However, it was the first and only time for the Chinese handball to step onto the Olympic podium.

Witnessing the downslide of the Chinese handball during their player career, both of them choose to retire in the 1990s. Liu Shuyong became a sport tutor in Harbin Normal University in Northeast China, while Liu Fengjuan worked as a military official in Beijing.

However, neither of them found it easy to cut handball out of their daily life. "It was hard to bear a life without handball,"said the 36-year-old Liu Shuyon. "But it was also hard for me to return to the court."

Only one year after retirement, Liu Shuyong found another way to pursue her enthusiasm in handball. She enrolled in a handball referee course in 1998, and in the course she met Liu fengjuan who shared the same nostalgia towards handball.

The two persons with similar background, similar enthusiasm and similar thought finally converged and became tacit partners since then.

After certificated as national level referees in 1999, Liu Shuyong and Liu Fengjuan began to appear in all levels of Chinese handball matches in the following years, hoping to gain enough experience to upgrade as soon as possible.

"As players we seldom had chance to compete in international level, so we were eager to experience international handball as referees," said 39-year-old Liu fengjuan.

After becoming Asian level referees in 2002, the duo determined to reach the international level and show up in Beijing Olympics.

"The most difficult part is foreign language," said Liu fengjuan. Spending two much time training and playing handball when they were teenagers, they almost had no time for school work, especially the "complicated and seldom used English". In order to meet the physical and language qualifications, Liu fengjuan and Liu Shuyong must run at least five kilometers per day and spend hours on memorizing English words and practicing dialogues before they reached international level in 2004.

The duo's determination to referee in Olympics was supported by Chinese Handball Association, who invited several high-level European referees to give training sessions in China.

Since 2005, Liu Fengjuan and Liu Shuyong refereed in many important competitions, including 2006 Doha Asian Games and 2007 World Championship and the duo received widely recognition. This February, they finally claimed their berth in Beijing Games.

"We spent much more time together than with our family these years. Luckily, our families are supportive and considerable to us,"said Liu Shuyong.

"Appearance in Olympic Games is only a small step. Chinese referees still have a long way to go. Currently, China only have two pairs of international level referees,"added Liu Shuyong after calming down from the excitement of Olympic debut.

Liu Shuyong's worry was echoed by her partner. "Generally speaking, a good European referee will attend around seventy to eighty matches. But for a Chinese referee, the average number is only around twenty. Our Chinese handball referees can not be fully developed unless handball is well promoted and developed in China."

"But we still have time. Neither of us will quit until the age of fifty," said a smiling Liu Fengjuan.


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