The Republic of Korea have long dominated short track and will be desperate to do the same on home territory at PyeongChang 2018. Rivals China bettered them at Sochi 2014, however – and Wu Dajing is a skater entering his prime and determined to take gold as part of a strong Chinese squad.
Wu Dajing celebrates in Shanghai
Wu Dajing is China’s fastest man on ice. Born in Heilongjiang Province, renowned for its long winters, the youngster grew up dazzled by the feats of his homeland’s Short Track stars like Yang Yang – and was soon impressing at junior level.
His first Olympics, Sochi 2014, confirmed his great potential. In Russia, aged just 19, he picked up Olympic silver – being narrowly pipped to 500m gold by that winter’s superstar, Russia’s Victor An. Wu was part of the foursome that won the men’s 5000m Relay bronze medal, too. After the games, Wu became 500m World Champion in Montreal, the sprinter’s favorite distance.
Significantly, the young Wu’s achievements were enough to help knock Short Track’s powerhouse nation, the Republic of Korea, into third place behind China in the discipline’s medal standings. China took two golds, three silvers and one bronze, while their rivals had to settle for two golds, one silver and two bronze.
His progress has continued apace since. Dajing won World Championship golds in 2015 (500m and 5000m relay) and 2016 (5000m relay). His increasing profile meant he was named as China’s flag-bearer for the 2017 Asian Winter Games.
Team China celebrate victory at the Asian Winter Games 2017
His form, meanwhile, seems to be coming nicely to the boil for PyeongChang 2018. He has started slowly: a disappointing 2017 World Championships in Rotterdam – where he again got silver in the 500m, behind Sjinkie Knegt (NED), was followed by a quiet beginning to this season: a fourth place at the Audi ISU World Cup in Budapest, and third place in the 5000m relay in Dordrecht, were as good as things got.
But in Shanghai, on home ice in the first of two Asia-based Audi ISU World Cup events, the 23-year-old tore up the ice. He raced to an impressive 500m win, ahead of Korean rivals Seo Yi Ra and Kim Do Kyoum, before adding a surprise first place in the 1000m, ahead of Hungarian brothers Shaolin Sandor Liu and Shaoang Liu.
Medal ceremony 1000m Audi ISU World Cup Shanghai
Afterwards, Dajing couldn’t contain his happiness, and hinted that China’s performances overall were a “major source of encouragement”.
But can they once again achieve the unlikely feat of outperforming the Republic of Korea – on their own rink, in the sport they have historically dominated (21 Olympic gold medals overall, with China in second place, with nine)?
Dajing has hope. “Our preparations are good,” he said. “The Olympics is nearing and we’ll do our best. We have a good atmosphere in the team and we encourage each other. At competitions it’s been harmonious within the team.”
He points to this unity being the main reason for China’s hopes of causing an upset in the Gangneung Ice Arena, where the Winter Olympic Short Track action begins on 10 February.
“I think China’s strength is that we’re very united in our goal,” he said. “That makes us well prepared for the challenges. Our individual levels are all high. I think all of us are capable of challenging to be champion.
“Let’s see what happens when it’s here. It’s still too early to say who will be number one. Everyone starts at the same line. There’s definitely pressure but we still have to do our part. We’re less than 30 days from the Olympics, and we have to do our best.”
Dajing isn’t even certain that the Olympic hosts should be so strongly tipped as favorites. While their skaters did dominate the Audi ISU World Cup opener in Budapest, both the Dordrecht and Shanghai events resulted in a far more even distribution of the honors, with Canada, China and Hungary all in the mix.
“Currently, South Korea are not necessarily the best,” he said. “I feel every country’s standards have raised and, overall, the standards are up. That’s why I feel it’s not only South Korea that’s strong. Every team has improved – including of course China, which is also one of the strong teams, right?”
So how fierce is the desire to gatecrash the PyeongChang party? “We want to beat everyone. We might see them [the Republic of Korea] as a rival but we have to treat every team seriously. Every team is a rival. So we have to do our part before we can consider beating them.
“But when we talk about competitiveness, look at the quick rise of Europe. A rivalry is not limited to only China and South Korea. We are one country, and so are they. At the end it’s still a competition of many countries.
“Every country trains differently, which is why every country’s condition at every competition is different. So this week the Chinese team may perform better, next week maybe Europe will be better, just like we weren’t at our best the previous two legs.”
Wu Dajing in action
However it pans out, Wu is sure it’s going to be exciting. Having already tasted Winter Olympic success, he’s got a few tips for his young teammates. “Look forward to this Olympics, rather than feeling pressure. After all, it will be their first Olympics. They’re probably more excited than anything.”
And his focus now as February approaches? “Train hard, train tough, train more.”