Team China

Olympic history made on ice

By Lei Lei (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-02-17 09:36
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Olympic history made on ice
China's Shen Xue (L) and Zhao Hongbo celebrate on learning that they had won the gold medal after their performance in the pairs free skating figure skating event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 15, 2010.  [Photo/Agencies]

Olympic history made on ice
China's Pang Qing (L) and Tong Jian perform during the pairs free skating figure skating event at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 15, 2010. [Photo/Agencies] 

Chinese pair win Vancouver gold, ending Russia's 46-year domination

VANCOUVER, Canada: Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo broke Russia's 46-year stranglehold on the Olympics figure skating pairs event on Monday night (yesterday Beijing time) with a mesmerizing performance.

The husband-and-wife duo earned a record combined total of 216.57 points to capture China's first title in the discipline.

It took the veteran figure skating pair 18 years to finally realize their Winter Olympic gold dream at their possibly last Games show at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.

The duo came out of retirement for a fourth attempt at winning their sport's top prize and achieved their goal in spectacular style, earning a standing ovation from cheering fans.

"This is a dream come true," Zhao said. "We've had this dream for many years. Every time we heard the anthem or saw the flag (when we won something), we wished it was the Olympic Games."

Shen, who could not hold back tears when the score was posted to lift them to their Olympic title, said: "It felt like a dream."

Russian or Soviet skaters had dominated the pairs event by winning gold at 12 successive Olympics stretching back to the 1964 Innsbruck Games.

The gold medal also made the Chinese pair the first-ever non-European couple to be crowned in Olympic figure skating history.

"It's been so many years," said Zhao. "To finally get this gold today is so exciting."

At the age of 36, Zhao is the oldest athlete among the whole Chinese delegation to the Vancouver Games, as well as the second oldest Olympic champion in the event's history. He was preceded by Walter Jakobsson of Finland, who won the event in 1920 at 37.

"We have experienced so much in our careers and earning an Olympic gold medal at such an age is worthwhile," he added.

With the music of Adagio in G Minor, the three-time world champion pair nailed a perfect triple toe, excellent throw jumps and showed a rare forward spiral to earn not only a personal best of 139.91 points, but also to post a record total score of 216.57.

Although Shen, 31, tumbled onto Zhao's back during a lift in the free skating, it was good enough for the gold.

Another Chinese pair, Pang Qing and Tong Jian, won the silver medal, followed by the reigning world champions, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.

Pang and Tong won the world title in 2006, but have since struggled to recapture that brilliance.

Olympic history made on ice
Gold medallists China's Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo (L) hold their country's flag with compatriots silver medallists Pang Qing and Tong Jian (R) at the medals ceremony after the pairs figure skating finals at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 15, 2010.  [Photo/Agencies]

The list of accomplishments for Shen and Zhao is lengthy: Three World Championships, six victories in the Grand Prix finals and two Olympic bronzes.

They can now not only add Olympic gold to their impressive resumes.

Shen, 31, and Zhao, 36, who came out of retirement last year, became China's first Olympic gold medalists in figure skating. But in getting to this unfamiliar and grand spotlight, Shen and Zhao have overcome a number of injuries as well as disappointing performances in nearly two decades of ups and downs.

After teaming up in 1992, the two made an auspicious start, winning the national championships in four months. Four years later, they made their World Championship debut and despite finishing in 15th place, their ambitious moves and distinctive style distinguished them as a pair to watch.

After finishing second in the Worlds in 1999, Shen and Zhao were among the favorites in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. A failed attempt at the quadruple salchow - the most difficult movement in the sport - sent them tumbling to bronze.

The pair recovered from that disappointment to claim gold in the World Championships later that year. They repeated the following year despite a serious injury to one of Shen's ankles, which was wrapped heavily in tape during the competition.

Then another injury struck. The duo was forced to withdraw from the 2005 World Championships when Zhao ruptured his Achilles' tendon while practicing a triple toeloop in August that year. He was off the ice for months afterward.

Following a full recovery, the pair stood on the podium again with a bronze medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics half a year later. They decided to hang it up after winning their third Worlds in 2007.

But China's drought of Olympic gold in the sport drew the duo back to the ice. Overcoming their age - their careers is longer than some of the skaters have been alive - and lingering injuries, the couple started chasing for the gold last May.

"The only goal of our comeback is the Olympic gold medal," said Zhao, not hiding his ambition before the Games.

In three competitions this year, the pair has been victorious, improving their personal bests each time out. Their steady progress has earned the respect of fans and the media home and abroad.

"I don't think (the comeback) has been easy, because in order to keep at such a high level, it requires much effort," said Tatjana Flade, a German journalist who has covered figure skating for almost two decades, told China Daily. "When you retire, life seems to be easier, but coming back to training, they had to practice every day. It's really hard to motivate yourself. But they had their dreams and they worked for it and made it happen."

At the short program competition on Sunday, they were the first of 20 pairs, but their spectacular performance impressed the judges. Their personal best in the short program secured the top spot heading into the free skating competition the following day.

Shen and Zhao, who were married in 2007, have had to hold off a wedding ceremony and any thoughts of starting a family for the past three years. Now, they said, it seems like the right time to celebrate.

"I think it's difficult to continue skating in competitions. Maybe it's time to have a baby," said Zhao.

AP and Reuters contributed to the story