BEIJING (AP) – For decades, Beijing resident Zhou Yunjie kept mum about his teenage years behind the puck.
That all changed after Beijing won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, sparking a government-backed boom in enthusiasm for winter sports across the country. The Games are due to begin on February 4.
Now, the 60-year-old is back on the ice, proudly suiting up with his old teammates for friendly competitions and retellings of their time competing for Beijing in the late 1970s.
“For many years I could not talk about ice hockey,” said Zhou, who owns a technology company in the Chinese capital. “Not even my family knew … They were so surprised after I took to the ice and showed I could play hockey.”
Zhou is now a regular at Wednesday and Saturday night games at a rink in northeast Beijing. The games have become fixtures in the lives of the hockey veterans who first took up the sport more than 40 years ago as members of a city youth team.
In the 1970s, they were the standouts from among more than 200 would-be hockey players, and entered the youth team at the Shichahai Sports School. The famed academy sits next to Beijing’s network of lakes, which regularly draw winter sports enthusiasts to their inviting frozen surfaces.
Competition was tough, however, and after five years of professional training, they only managed a sixth place in the 1978 national competition. A year later, the team was dissolved due to a lack of funds and interest from the public.
The players, mostly 17 or 18 years old at the time, went off to new lives just as China’s economy was beginning to thrive.
“Of course we were sad,” said Mei Chunhui, 61, who runs an engineering consulting firm. “We had no idea what we could do after that, but there was nothing we could do about it, so some of us got into colleges while others found jobs or joined the army.”
The hockey flame sputtered out, and for more than 35 years it seemed they wouldn’t play again.
Then, on July 31, 2015, Beijing won the right to host the 24th Winter Games, making the city the first to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Mei was inspired and began calling up his old friends to see if they could get a team together again.
Starting with just nine members in 2015, the team now has more than 20 of the 1979 veterans, most aged around 60.
“We just restarted,” said Mei. “We have nostalgia for it (and) we wanted to come back to enjoy the game.”
Fittingly, the team took the year 1979 as their team name.
“Sparked by the Winter Olympics, the government, schools and society have fired enthusiasm for ice hockey,” said Zhou. “It has also aroused our childhood emotions that have been lost for many years.”
China said it has met its target of attracting 300 million people to participate in winter sports, a pledge it made when it was bidding for the Winter Games. The Games organising committee said the country now boasts 654 standard ice rinks and 803 indoor and outdoor ski resorts.
Despite their enthusiasm, the 1979 teammates are feeling the years catching up with them. Tactics and teamwork now count for more than raw physical strength and fundamental skills, said 62-year-old Yang Xiaoliu.
Winning or losing matters even less, the players said.
“What we care about is the way we enjoy and feel the games,” said Zhou. “It’s the way we exchange emotions with each other.”