FAME THROUGH FLAME: Jin Jing, famous for protecting the Olympic torch from Tibetan separatists in Paris, is interviewed by the media in Shanghai on April 13
Paralympic fencer Jin Jing is a celebrity in China, but not for her sporting ability. The 27-year-old is best known for her valiant efforts to guard the Olympic flame during the eventful Paris leg of the torch relay in April.
As a child, fate did not treat Jin well. As a baby, she enjoyed running around like others her age, but at 9 all changed when she lost part of her right leg to a malignant tumor in her ankle. She had to learn to use crutches, and in the beginning she often fell down.
In 2001, a teacher at Shanghai Sport Vocational School asked Jin whether she would like to be an athlete. Jin was very interested, but her parents did not agree for fear that sports would be too much for her. Later, a coach of Shanghai Wheelchair Fencing Team asked Jin to join the team. A fan of Zorro, the fictional swordsman, Jin managed to convince her parents and became a wheelchair fencer on July 13, the day Beijing won its bid for the Olympics.
In the following two years, Jin rose up in the fencing hierarchy, and won third place in the Women's epee event at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in 2003, which was her best performance so far. Although Jin did not qualify for the Beijing Paralympic Games, she did not give up. Instead, she chose to contribute to the Games in another way. Encouraged by her friends, Jin enrolled in the competition for Olympic torchbearers. "With my smile I wanted to cheer disabled people and bring sunshine and confidence to them," Jin explained.
"The Paralympic Games have boosted my self-confidence. Through the Games, I am able to show my strong side to the world, which in turn makes me even stronger," said He Junquan, winner of four gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, where he clocked three world records.
Although he lost both arms as the result of an electric shock as a toddler, he has embraced life with extraordinary perseverance. As a child He loved swimming and learned to move through the water like a fish. His swimming ability once enabled him to save a girl's life.
Competitive swimming has come with a few aches and pains. Because he has no arms, He has to touch the end of the pool with his head each time he completes a lap, which often leaves him bruised. He's experienced quite a number of bruises in the past few months, while in training for the upcoming Paralympic Games.
Another veteran athlete, Zhang Xiaoling is also sweating it out in training for the Beijing Paralympics. Zhang, 51, has participated in five Paralympic Games and won 10 gold medals since 1988.
When Zhang was 19, she hurt her ankle when working on a farm. Because she failed to see a doctor in time, Zhang eventually lost her right leg. Zhang did not give up hope for her future, but found a new passion in life, ping-pong. To date she has won nearly 30 medals in international competitions for disabled persons.
"Had I not gotten into sports, I would hardly have stepped out of my hometown. I would never have dreamed of going to Athens and winning a gold medal," said Fu Taoying, a disabled athlete growing up in the countryside of Jiangsu Province. At the Athens Paralympic Games, Fu won a gold in the women's 60 kg weightlifting event, breaking her own world record.
Fu was disabled by polio when she was a child. She used to spend her days at home cooking, washing, taking care of her older brother's baby and doing other chores. Fu thought her life would go on like this for good.
In 1998, as Fu turned 30, a friend introduced her to a weightlifting coach. The coach told Fu that she could be a promising weightlifter. Though Fu was skeptical about becoming an athlete given her disability, she decided to give it a try. Fu soon fell in love with weightlifting and bloomed into a gold medallist at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games. Since then she has won more gold medals and broken several world records.
"Weightlifting has enriched my life and let me see the world. I have become more confident and upbeat," said Fu. Her biggest prize in sports is her husband, who used to be a competitor in China's Paralympic weightlifting team. "Weightlifting brought us together. We met each other when we were both training in weightlifting. Later we both entered the national team, and participated in the Sydney Paralympic Games," Fu said. In 2001, Fu gave birth to a beautiful daughter. Fu's husband now runs a business and Fu feels blessed about her happy marriage.
Paralympic sports boom
China's first Paralympic gold medal was earned by track and field athlete Ping Yali at the 1984 New York Games. "At the Games, Chinese athletes won 24 medals. Although we were not very satisfied with our performance, some foreign athletes and coaches were impressed," recalled Ping.
Since 1984, Chinese Paralympic athletes have been getting better and better. They have won a total of 143 gold, 118 silver and 85 bronze medals.
Paralympic sports began to be standardized in China in 1983 when the China Disabled Persons' Sports Association was founded. Branches have since been set up across the country. On April 1, 2004, China's Paralympic Management Center was launched, providing institutional support to Paralympic sports.
In addition, many universities, such as Liaoning Sport College and Tianjin Sport College offer special physical training courses for disabled persons. Beijing Sport University has a master degree program in this field. Sports for the disabled in China have quickly evolved from spontaneous activity into organized events supported by high technology and knowledge.
The outstanding performance of Chinese Paralympic athletes at the Athens Games should to some extent be credited to high-caliber coaches. Guo Weilian, who holds three Paralympic gold medals and broke a Paralympic record in javelin, has a great coach, Qi Dechang, who used to train Liu Xiang's coach. Liu is China's Olympic gold medal winner in men's hurdles.
As in many countries, Paralympic athletes in China are not professional players. The cost of training might have kept talented people with limited financial resources away from sports. "We are going to address this issue," expressed Wang Xinxian, Vice President of China Disabled Persons' Federation. "The performance of Paralympic athletes in the Games will inspire more disabled persons to participate in sports."
Currently, China has 82.96 million disabled people, accounting for 6.34 percent of the total population. Sports not only help disabled people regain physical strength, but also encourage them to break down psychological and social barriers, said Deng Pufang, President of the China Disabled Persons' Federation.