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You have probably never heard of any of the riders China is sending to Hong Kong. Many in China had not heard of them either until the Olympic press engines revved up.
I had to do a little digging, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have been able to piece together a little background. Bear with me -- I think its worth reflecting on the international ties that have pulled this team together.
A little history
It is possible that the population of ceramic horses in China outnumbers the real ones. From the frozen armies in the Han-era tombs to the endless reproductions of Tang ceramic horses that tourists cart home, these clay replicants are a reminder that the horse was once of paramount importance in China, not just as a zodiac symbol but as a source of military might. The leaders if the Tang era had a passion for improving their horses, and their quests to the east, to Turkmenistan, Persia and Arabia were the first steps in the creation of the famous Silk Road trade route. During the Tang Dynasty, the horse reached its cultural peak - "dancing" horses entertained the emperor and his elite subjects played polo.
Yet as Europe was entering its Middle Ages, beginning the Crusades that introduced that same hot blood into their horses and developing the roots of classical horsemanship, the equestrian culture in China was beginning to fade from importance as the Song dynasty ascended. The importation of horses ceased, and riding was no longer an important art.
So while there are vast numbers of horses in China, up to 11 million, they are mostly the steppe breeds -- hardy and short-necked like their Tarpan ancestors, and not well suited for Olympic sports, or horses bred elsewhere.
Chinese riders are on the increase - there are 3,000-4,000 participants in riding clubs across the country, but there isn't a huge equestrian tradition to draw on. However, China does have a national organization, the Chinese Equestrian Association (CEA), and a team which regularly participates in the Asian Games.
So in 2001, when China was announced as the host country of the 2008 Olympics, there were riders out there eager to take up the challenge. There would be six spots available: a show-jumping team of four, and one opening each in dressage and eventing.
Unlike the sports where China was anticipating a medal, there would be no government funding. Riders who wanted to qualify were on their own, although there would be a little help offered in seeking private sponsorship. Miraculously, each of the six spots was filled. Behind each one is a story.
From the outpost of Urumqi, in the Northwest steppes where riding was still a part the nomadic lifestlye, came Lina Liu. She was of Russian ethnic background, a promising young rider on the Xinjiang equestrian team, which has fully backed her bid for the Olympics.
They sent her off to Denmark and Germany to train. The biggest difficulty at first was her lack of common language. She now speaks English fluently, and more importantly, the language of international dressage. By May of 2007 she was able to rack up the three scores over 60 in FEI dressage competitions -- that is the requirement for Olympic participation - with her 12 year old liver chestnut mare Piroschka.
Her Chinese coach, Liu Zong, was there with her in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain when her score was announced.
She was the first-ever Chinese rider to qualify for the Olympics. With a FEI world ranking of 240 in April, it is not so much a medal she is aiming for as simply a graceful performance, one that might put dancing horses back on the Chinese map.