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Journey to the North: Winter sport strengthens China-Finland ties

By Liu Ning, Yang Mu (People's Daily Online)    15:46, May 17, 2019

Finland, with a third of its territory above the Arctic Circle, is one of the world's northernmost countries. It's a vast playground for those who love winter sports, a passion favored by the country's 5.5 million people.

Cross-country skiing, ski jumping, skating, ice hockey, you name it. Finland has trained a large number of world-class athletes, having brought home 166 Winter Olympic medals so far, 43 of which are gold.

Winter sport is deeply rooted in Finnish culture and nature as most interviewees proudly tell People's Daily Online: "In Finland, kids are born with their skis on."

Now, Finland is ready to offer its expertise to China, as Beijing looks to plant roots of its own winter sports culture in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is less than 1,000 days away.

"I hope Beijing 2022 will inspire people in China as well as people in the rest of the world to try winter sports," said Nelli Kuokka, director of Communications and Public Affairs of the Finnish Olympic Committee.

The year 2019 marks the China-Finland Year of Winter Sports, which was agreed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto during President Xi's visit to Finland in 2017.

"This link is very strong between China and Finland as it is the first time that such a theme year of winter sports has been created," said Kati Mälkki-Karttunen, coordinator of the China-Finland Year of Winter Sports 2019 program at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

(Photo: Yang Mu/People's Daily Online)

As part of the exchange program under the thematic year, Finland is exporting its training and coaching philosophy to China. So far, more than 700 Chinese athletes have had professional training in Finland, and 10 Finnish coaches have come to China to share their training methods. Over 170 Chinese cross-country skiers and ice-hockey players are currently taking world-class training courses in Finland to prepare for Beijing 2022.

It's not just about training on the top-level. Finland is advocating for sport-for-all activities, a welcome nod to China's national fitness program as China has set a goal to reach 300 million new winter sports enthusiasts by 2022.

"We are interested to cooperate with China in terms of training and coaching on any level – kids' level, youth level, amateur level, all the way up to top level," said Ismo Hmlinen, director of the Vierumäki Olympic Training Center, which is about 1.5-hour drive from Helsinki. The training center has received different sports clubs from China for training, providing systematic services including training, physical test, accommodations and dining. "We also want to learn from China about its culture, and if we can help Chinese athletes succeed along the process, why not?" Hmlinen said.

Finns fully embrace nature – another reason why they are so passionate about winter sports. Construction and maintenance of sports facilities in Finland also live up to the beautiful landscape of the country. There are 75 ski resorts and over 40 national parks open to the public across the country. In Lahti region alone, there are 25 outdoor ice rinks managed and operated by local authorities, where the public and professionals enjoy the same sports facilities, all free of charge.

Ski jump in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: Yang Mu/People's Daily Online)

"Winter sports events need special know-how on how to design facilities and how to utilize them," opined Mikko Saarinen, project director of Winter Know- How of Lahti Region. Saarinen said Finland and China could work closely together on how to optimize the environmental conditions of hosting major winter sports events like Beijing 2022. Namely, making and storing artificial snow and ice for ski resorts and ice rinks, as well as venue management. He added that the core strategy is to use the stadiums and arenas all year round for different events and purposes even after a global event like Beijing 2022 takes place.

Within the week in which People's Daily Online's reporters visited Finland, two major world championships took place: the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship and the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships 2019. It's worth mentioning that this is the first time a Chinese team has ever competed in the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships. The team has a memorable name: Ice Pearl.

"Our synchronized skating team was established from scratch last year," said Zhao Yue, captain of the Chinese Ice Pearl team. "It's lucky that we can participate in the World Synchronized Skating Championships. I hope there could be more Chinese athletes participating in synchronized skating. The more Chinese teams competing in more games, the better," she said.

Chinese Ice Pearl team competed in the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships for the first time. (Photo: Yang Mu/People's Daily Online)

Huang Feng, a competition consultant at the Chinese Figure Skating Association, managed Ice Pearl's first participation in the world championships in Finland. He was very impressed with the hospitality of the local audience and couldn't help cracking a smile when they applauded Chinese skaters' agile movements and footwork over the ice.

"I'm also impressed at the way the event is managed and operated - it's very well organized," Huang added. "In welcoming the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, there's now a trend in the crossover of different sports in China, presenting an excellent opportunity for figure skating. We'd love to use this crossover opportunity to inspire more athletes to join figure skating," he said.

"Winter sport needs to expand and thus needs China," said Mikko Saarinen from the Winter Know- How project of Lahti Region, "It's great to see China putting more efforts in it."

Concurred Petri Tulensalo, the head of Sports Cluster of Business Finland, which is the most important public funding agency in Finland. "China is the biggest market in the world, presenting a huge opportunity for Finland's winter sports industry," he noted.

"It's a huge industry, not just about the products, but also culture and tourism," Tulensalo added, hoping that stronger ties and cooperation between China and Finland on winter sports can also boost the two countries' tourism and cultural exchange.

Both Tulensalo and Saarinen emphasized the importance of winter sports education over everything else. "Most importantly, education matters," Saarinen said, "we need to work on how we can get children in the snow, interested in playing in the snow and maybe become a professional athlete one day."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Liu Ning, Bianji)

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