BEIJING SNAPSHOT: Cheering for China on cold, dark night

China may not have a strong winter sports tradition, but skating is one of the areas where its athletes have excelled

BEIJING -- On a freezing, pitch-black night, as the shops were closing, a crowd of Beijingers gathered in front of a giant outdoor TV screen to watch the country's elite speed skaters chase Olympic gold. They would not be disappointed.

China may not have a strong winter sports tradition, but skating is one of the areas where its athletes have excelled. And residents of the capital are especially enthusiastic fans, since many take to the ice themselves on the city's many lakes and canals as soon as the bitter winter renders them frozen.

So Saturday night's short track speedskating mixed team relay final was bound to draw a massive audience.

It came with a heavy dose of drama, as Italy came within a hair’s breath of spoiling the party. But in the end China's four men and women perfectly executed their carefully planned strategy. Wu Dajing edged Pietro Sighel by .016 seconds, the equivalent of half a skate blade. Chanting “add oil," the Chinese equivalent of “go go," the crowd erupted in ecstatic cheers.

“It was thrilling," said Beijing resident Cheng Hongwei, who was among the crowd of several dozen that gathered in the central Wangfujing shopping area. "I was very excited and was filled with all kinds of emotions."

Such gatherings take on special significance at this year's Games, with pandemic restrictions severely limiting the number of spectators allowed at the venues. Enthusiasm for the contest — and national pride — remain undimmed.

“It’s a very exciting thing to see the Chinese national flag being raised again,” said Jolin Li.