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In the years since Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games, more disabled people in China are engaging in snow and ice sports than ever before – with far-reaching effects

By Wu Jin Updated May.1

The Chinese wheelchair curling team competes against Slovakia in the round robin at the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Winter Games, March 9

Zhang Wenjing wins the bronze medal in Alpine Skiing Women’s Giant Slalom (sitting) at the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Winter Games, March 11

Visually impaired footballers play a match in Qingdao, Shandong Province, in a match on October 10, 2012. In blind football, the ball has a bell inside, and a sighted goalkeeeper shouts instructions to players

Paralympic curling delivery stick in hand, Chen Jianxin propelled a yellow stone down the ice at the Water Cube, the curling venue for the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Winter Games, renamed the Ice Cube for the duration of its transformation.  

As it slid within the concentric circles of the target, his teammates erupted in cheers. The Chinese mixed wheelchair curling team won their group-stage match against South Korea on March 7.  

Chen and the team had gotten off to a rocky start, losing their first two matches against Canada and Sweden. But things turned around with a win against Estonia. They kept that momentum with their victory over South Korea, and went on to defeat Switzerland, the US, Slovakia and Norway.  

On March 12, Team China once again faced off against Sweden in the finals. This time, the team emerged on top 8-3, defending their Paralympic gold medal.  

In 2018, Chen and the team made history by winning China’s first Winter Paralympics medal at the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea.  

As one of a few Paralympics veterans among China’s 96 athletes who competed in the Games from March 4-13, Chen’s challenging journey reflects how winter sports are changing the lives of disabled people in China. 

The Comeback Kid 
In 2010, a car accident left Chen paralyzed from the waist down. “I wish it was just a bad dream,” the 30-year-old Beijing native told the Beijing News in an interview marking the 100-day countdown to the Beijing Winter Paralympics. “But the reality is I have to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I fell into an abyss of desperation.” 

Bedridden and crying every day, teenage Chen refused to see anybody or do anything. One night, he overheard his grandmother whispering to his grandfather that she was exhausted from helping him to the bathroom.  

Chen suddenly felt tremendous guilt for giving up on himself, and resolved to return the unconditional love of his aging grandparents by doing something meaningful with his life.  

In 2013, Chen connected with his local branch of the Beijing Disabled Persons’ Federation in Yanqing District, which led him to their training center in Beijing.  

Chen first trained in wheelchair fencing, but in August 2014 joined the newly formed Beijing Wheelchair Curling Team. The switch was a gamechanger.  

“When I joined Beijing’s first curling team, I had no idea how to play. But I knew that the Winter Paralympics would be held here and I wanted to win a medal to make my grandparents happy,” Chen told the Beijing News.  

Chen ramped up training ahead of the Games, putting in six hours a day on the curling court. By quitting time, his feet are frozen.  

“Curling stones weigh about 20 kilograms, and moves that wouldn’t be complicated for an able-bodied athlete are real challenges for me,” Chen said. “The sport takes a strong core and upper arms. One wrong move and you’ll lose your balance and end up on the ice,” he told the Beijing News.  

Curling also takes high levels of team coordination. While wheelchair curling does not have sweepers smoothing the ice ahead of the stone, a teammate must hold the deliverer’s wheels to keep them from slipping on the sheet. This requires precise timing, and athletes dedicate months to getting it right.  

On June 18, 2015, all their hard work paid off. The team took first at the 9th National Games for Persons with Disabilities held in Sichuan Province, claiming their first title. It was also Chen’s 23rd birthday.  

“I couldn’t stop crying that day,” Chen told the Beijing News. “Life had been so tough for me, and when we won all the misery I had felt came out at once. With that sense of achievement that had been elusive for so many years, I began convincing myself that I am still capable, and invincible to the challenges I face,” Chen said.  

Six weeks later, Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. During those seven years, increasing numbers of disabled people from all backgrounds have participated in national and international tournaments for a shot to represent China in the Winter Paralympics.  

From China’s first Winter Paralympics at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, fewer than 50 athletes competed in just two events – cross-country skiing and wheelchair curling. In contrast, the athlete pool for the Beijing Winter Paralympics numbered nearly 1,000 and spans every event. 

Hometown Heroes 
Cheng Mingxiang was born without the use of her right arm. On March 1, the 59-year-old took a shuttle bus from her community to Beijing’s Disabled Persons Curling and Ice Hockey Sports Center in the city’s southern Daxing District.  

The 40 million yuan (US$6.3m) wheelchair-accessible stadium has been open to disabled people free of charge since last year. Non-profit athletic programs like Cheng’s are increasingly popping up in communities throughout Beijing.  

“Before I joined, I didn’t go out much,” Cheng told NewsChina after finishing a two-hour curling session with her friends.  

“I used to dance with able-bodied people but felt embarrassed when the instructor asked why I couldn’t straighten my arm. However, after meeting so many women with similar conditions through curling, I feel comfortable with myself,” Cheng said. 
According to a white paper on China’s sports development and rights of disabled people issued by the State Council Information Office on March 3, the participation rate of disabled people in sports and cultural events increased from 6.8 percent in 2015 to 23.9 percent in 2021.  

Tan Jian, who coaches a curling team with the Beijing Disabled Persons’ Federation, also heads the Sweet Home program in Daxing’s Qingyuan Community.  

Launched by the Federation in 2003, Sweet Home aims to improve the lives of the elderly, welfare recipients and disabled residents of Beijing through local activities and programs. It has 666 branches serving communities across the city.  

As a Sweet Home coordinator, Tan has conducted many programs since Beijing won its Winter Games bid in 2015. Most recently, she joined a month-long curling training program before organizing the amateur curling team in Qingyuan Community. She eventually recruited 100 people, half of whom still train regularly. “We started from zero. We didn’t even know how to move the stone. Now we’re good at it,” Tan said. 
Cheng said she and her teammates struggled at first, particularly with getting a feel for delivering the stones, but have got the hang of it now. “We’re so happy together, especially when we see our stone hit the target,” she said.  

Beijing aims to expand the Sweet Home program to 1,000 branches by 2025, according to a plan released by the Beijing Municipal Working Committee for Disabilities and the Beijing Development and Reform Commission on September 30, 2021, as part of the city’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).  

Wang Qin, a cervical and colon cancer survivor, is a star on the Qingyuan Community curling team. “I’ve played at this curling rink several times. Although the results from my last checkup in October were worse than expected, I’m taking part in this sport with the hopes it will help me become healthier and stronger in the years to come,” she told NewsChina.  

Beijing’s Snow and Ice Carnival, an annual event held in cities across the country that focus on engaging disabled people in winter sports, saw 100,000 visits since 2016, according to the Beijing Culture and Sports Center for the Disabled. At the national level, the winter sports program organized by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation has grown from 14 to 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities over the past six years.  

“As disabled people participate in more sports through improved technologies, their negative thoughts and feelings diminish and are replaced with positivity, which is instrumental to their psychological well-being,” Wang Yuenan, director of the Center, told NewsChina.  

“Through sports, they join the wider spectrum of society as equals and are expected to achieve what able-bodied people can,” he added. 

Breaking Barriers 
The first Paralympics milestone was the Stoke Mandeville Games. Held in 1948 at a hospital for injured war veterans in Buckinghamshire, England, the games included 14 men and 2 women competing in one event – wheelchair archery. German-born neurologist Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980) led the project to bring sports to disabled patients, especially those wounded in the World Wars.  

The Stoke Mandeville Games evolved into the first Paralympics, which followed the 1960 Summer Games in Rome.  

In 1976, the first Paralympic Winter Games was held in Sweden, in part thanks to improved prosthetic designs for skiing by Austrian double-leg amputee Sepp Zwicknagel (1919-1997).  

Eight years later, China had its first Paralympian. Ping Yali was born blind and working at rubber factory in Beijing in the early 1980s when recruiters signed her to China’s athletic system. She trained in the long jump, and won gold at the 1984 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.  

The 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics saw around 600 top-end athletes from across the world competing in 78 events across six sports: Alpine skiing, cross country skiing, biathlon, snowboarding, para ice hockey and wheelchair curling. The 10-day Games drew considerable attention to China’s progress to ensure equal rights for people with disabilities, as well as their well-being and self-development.  

“Quality of life for disabled people requires not only substantive support but also equal rights, dignity, equality and security,” Guo Liqun, executive deputy director of the China Commission on Promotion of Publicity for the Undertakings of Chinese Disabled Persons (Commission) said in an interview with the Beijing Evening News.  

Among disabled people aged 15 and older, 79 percent are literate thanks to efforts outlined in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016- 2020), according to a blue paper on China’s undertakings for disabled persons released by the Commission, Social Sciences Academy Press and the China Disabilities Institute at the Renmin University of China, on March 1.  

However, the paper points out that disabled people in China still face challenges such as relapsing into poverty, less competitive job skills and social inequality – tough issues to be addressed during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).  

“For people labeled as disabled or poor, sports are one of the rare opportunities to overcome social barriers,” Zhang Yuping, a media and communications lecturer at Guangzhou University specializing in vulnerable groups, sports and media, told NewsChina.  

“But we, especially the media, shouldn’t always stereotype disabled people as ambitious and strong-willed. They live, work and pursue their dreams like everyone else, and it’s high time we stop talking about them as ‘others.’”  

At the district level, Beijing Disabled Persons’ Federation contracts outside businesses that specialize in elder care, sporting events and community activities, Zhang said. However, many branches are underfunded and are struggling to sustain these services for the long term.  

“Without the right funding, these programs will only last for two to three years. This shows social welfare for disabled people in China is not fully developed,” Zhang said. 

Zhang also pointed to the large gap in facilities and services for parasports between first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and China’s smaller cities.  

During the 13th Five-Year Plan (2015-2020), coverage of basic rehabilitation services and assistive devices reached 80 percent of the disabled population, more than 85 million people nationwide.  

According to the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), public services for disabled persons still need to be addressed, such as education, healthcare services, rehabilitation and accessible facilities.  

The effects of these efforts are far-reaching. On March 12, as he watched his son from the stands win Winter Paralympic gold in their hometown, Chen’s father beamed.  

“I am so proud of my son and hope he and his teammates can carry on the Paralympic legacy for more to enjoy,” he said.

Visually impaired masseurs participate in the third Professional Skill Competition for the Disabled conducted by the local government of Hainan Province, September 19, 2006

A woman uses a robot prosthetic for finger rehabilitation at a Sweet Home in Haidian District, Beijing, March 8