A Big Jump in Pyeongchang

Both Chinese Men and Women’s aerial skiers look for medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics for the fourth games in a row.


THERE are only 20 seconds between the moment when the last instructions are received from the coach and the final instant when the landing takes place, hopefully in a perfect fashion, on a 30 meters long snow-covered track: That’s about all the time an aerial skier has to perform. It’s an ephemeral moment when he finally declares himself ready, breaks the stillness, and boldly moves towards the icy celestial infinite until he celebrates ecstatically, boosted by the roar of the crowd, or ends up sunk in a sea of reproaches in front of the pitiful eyes of those watching his failed attempt.

This routine sums up a whole four-year period of preparation, a journey of countless sacrifices that each skier makes to achieve his goal of being the best at the Olympic Winter Games. Once the event kicks off, it's a clean slate and an open opportunity for everyone. Nothing guarantees a gold medal at the Olympics or the honor of being ranked the highest, and least of all being considered the soon-to-be-crowned champion, a label given by the experts to their favorite.

Aerial skiing qualifies among the most grueling sports due to the small margin of error, and is one of the five disciplines that comprise freestyle skiing along with moguls (debuted in 1992), cross (2010), half-pipe (2014) and slopestyle (2014), all of them part of the great multi-sports games.

The Rise of China to the Aerial Elite

The 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary served as a stage for the organizers of the winter Olympics to see, in an exhibition fair, the acceptance of one of the five disciplines of freestyle skiing, moguls, which would debut four years later in Albertville, France. Aerial skiing would receive the vote of confidence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) later in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994.

With a modest performance, the two participating Chinese specialists left the Norwegian town with Yin Hong ranking 17th and Ji Xiao'ou 18th. Both would show glimpses of their talent, a gift that many experts assumed was innate in their countrymen, as China was considered a powerhouse in acrobatic sports such as artistic gymnastics (from which these skiers most frequently emerge), diving (swimming), or trampolining (gymnastics).

The 1988 games in Nagano of Japan would begin to confirm that hypothesis, with Xu Nannan introducing the red flag of five yellow stars in an award ceremony with his silver medal. Salt Lake City in 2002 was a bitter pill to swallow: No Chinese stepped on the podium and the best performance in both sexes (fifth) went to teenager Li Nina. However, a streak was coming, one that the squad of China could give continuity to in Pyeongchang.

In the South Korean city, the aerial stars of the Asian giant are searching for their fourth time in a row to include a man as well as a woman among the medalists. No nation has come close to such a feat, with only Belarus (2-1-2) beating China among the men, going to the podium uninterruptedly for five games, while Australia (2-0-2) leads the ladies, with four successive medalists.

The Chinese medal streak started in Turin, 2006, with Li Nina herself, already a respected competitor (she won the 2005 World Championships), and Han Xiaopeng. Li took home the silver and Han made history with his gold medal by becoming China's first male athlete to win any event at the Olympic Winter Games.

The collective harvest increased to three medals in Vancouver, 2010, but the Canadian city was not the theater of an expected fairy tale. Han returned empty-handed and Li, with all the spotlights pointing to her status as three-time world champion (2005, 2007, and 2009), again was left one step away from the glory. A second pair of bronze medals was awarded to Guo Xinxin and Liu Zhongqing.

The bets would be tilted again in favor of a Chinese champion to follow in the wake of Han Xiaopeng in Sochi four years ago. Li Nina came to her fourth Olympics still with her thirst for glory unsatisfied and Xu Mengtao, crowned aerial queen in the 2013 Voss World Championships (runner-up in 2009 and 2011), was seen as the woman to beat.

A disastrous fall in the third and final round of four skiers deprived Li of once again standing on the podium. Xu also failed in her attempt with a faltering landing that would relegate her to silver and leave the Belarusian Alla Tsuper as the surprise winner. Among the men, battling for the triumph among the top four, Jia Zongyang would claim the bronze; meanwhile Qi Guangpu would run into a fate similar to that of Li Nina.

The revenge of Xu, Jia, and Qi?

Few athletes know how much sacrifice is needed to recover from adversity better than Xu Mengtao, unfortunately an expert in that subject. In January 2016, a serious injury to the cruciate ligaments of her left knee, after a crash landing in her last jump of the National Winter Games, forced her to hang up her skis for about 10 months.

After going through surgery and a long period of rehabilitation, her perseverance paid dividends by winning the first international event in which she participated in December of that year, the World Cup in Beidahu. That same determination will be crucial to her success in Pyeongchang, a challenge that represents a kind of personal revenge for Xu, a member of the exclusive club of skiers capable of executing in competitions routines with fatal triple leaps.

The complexity of her exercises is at the highest level, as well as the scores with which she has become a multi-medalist in World Championships (1-2-2). The confidence that undoubtedly hid an injury of such magnitude seems completely restored with her results in 2017. A little fortune then seems like the last factor to add to the equation that will catapult her to gold. She lacked this fortune in Sochi, 2014, when the experts’ predictions were that her main rival was none other than herself.

At 27, Xu is facing the classic “now or never” of every athlete: These must be the games of her definitive consecration. Cases like that of the aforementioned Alla Tsuper, champion in her fourth Olympics at 34 years of age, are exceptional.

The same could be said of Jia Zongyang (26 years old) and Qi Guangpu (27). Sixth in Vancouver, bronze in Sochi, and the first-time winner on a World Cup last December in Hebei Province, Jia can also be ranked among the select group of names that will start with title options. With even greater opportunities to climb to the top of the podium is Qi Guangpu, winner in the 2013 and 2015 World Championships (runner-up in 2011 and 2017), multi-champion in World Cups, but still waiting for an Olympic medal after two previous attempts (Vancouver, seventh; and Sochi, fourth).

No one is immune to the relentless passage of time. There is no Olympic tomorrow guaranteed for Xu, Jia, or Qi, as the new pool of aerial specialists in China is becoming more vast and more precocious with each new star that emerges. Closing their careers in their fourth games in Beijing 2022, triumphing before thousands of fans on the snowy Zhangjiakou ramp, would be a dream ending. However, that´s a golden ambition they´ll have enough time to dream about later. The urgent goal right now is to execute a memorable performance in Pyeongchang, an objective within reach of their current talent and physical abilities.


JORGE RAMÍREZ CALZADILLA was born in Havana, Cuba. He has collaborated as journalist with national and foreign publications and broadcast media for more than a decade. He has lived in Beijing since 2007.