Li is taking a massive risk to live out his Olympic dream

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2008, 12:00am

Every Olympian makes sacrifices, and every medal comes at a price, but few athletes with their sights set on Beijing will feel the cost as keenly as Li Zhenqiang, one of the mainland's few equestrian contenders.

In China, there is no tradition, few horses and a dearth of facilities - in fact, as Li discovered, pretty much all an aspiring showjumper can expect is a mountain of debt.

Li's debts stands at more than six million yuan - it would be more without local government and business support - and the 39-year-old from Changan, near Dongguan in Guangdong, has no clear plan for paying it back.

'My target was to qualify for the Olympic Games and all other matters can be settled afterwards, including how to pay back my debt,' said Li, who took a break from training camp in Belgium to visit his home town.

To qualify for the Olympics, Li brought his horse, Jumpy, in Belgium last December for Euro1 million (about HK$12.2 million). The Changan town government gave him three million yuan, and the business community another million, but he was still forced to borrow heavily.

But Li, who also represented China at both the 2002 Pusan and 2006 Doha Asian Games, where he achieved his best international result with a sixth-placed finish, blames no-one.

'Riders are more or less on their own in China, especially when you have to spend the money to buy a quality horse for a world class event like the Olympic Games,' Li said.

'In fact, even in western countries where equestrianism is very popular, most of the riders rely on commercial sponsorship rather than government support to buy horses.

'I consider myself very lucky as I have had the support of the local government and the support of Changan town people.'

Li achieved the minimum entrance standard (MES) in a five-star event in Lummen, Belgium on May 4 with an excellent six-penalty-point result, completing a 12-year journey from novice to Olympian. Three other mainland riders - Zhang Bin, Huang Zuping, Zhao Zhiwen - also qualified in a three-star event in Hagen, Germany the following week, adding to the already-qualified Liu Lina and Alex Hua Tian.

Cheng Qing, secretary-general of the Chinese Equestrian Association, admitted the organisation lacked the financial resources to buy international-quality horses for their budding riders.

'Unlike most of the sports in China where the government provides the required resources, we are not able to do so,' he said. 'As the sport's governing body, we can provide our athletes with support in venues and training, but not the money required to buy them horses to compete in the Olympics.'

Cheng said there was unlikely to be an increase in government support for the sport, meaning competitors such as Li would continue to be forced to find their own way.

For Cheng, this makes Li's achievement all the more incredible.

'He had never competed in a five-star event before, but he achieved the MES in his very first attempt. That was just amazing,' said Cheng. 'We have also had other riders who qualified later, but they did not make it in a five-star event.'

Li was born into a farming family, and after abandoning the paddy fields he cashed in on Guangdong's boom with a rock mining business.

'In 1994 I had a chance to join a riding school with my business partners and I found out how much I love the sport,' he said. 'I immediately took it up as a serious hobby until I thought it was time to move to another level.'

Two years later, Li decided to quit his business and became a full-time rider.

'It's never too late if you make up your mind, but it still took a lot of courage to start off as a rider because equestrianism was never a popular sport in China,' he said.

Li trained 12 hours a day under the guidance of visiting coaches from Germany and the Netherlands. His passion for the sport carried him through the difficult times and it did not take too long before he emerged as one of the mainland's top riding prospects.

In 1999, he came fifth in the national jumping championship and two years later he won a silver medal at the ninth National Games in Guangzhou. After the Doha Asian Games he set his sights firmly on the Olympics, but he knew that he'd have to reach another level if he was to meet the MES.

'We went to Germany to train for the first time in 2006, but we were only there three months because of a lack of sponsorship. When I started preparations for qualifying in Belgium in February it was only my second stint in Europe,' he said.

Li competed in three, three-star events, achieving his personal best of a four-penalty-point score in the last event before taking part in the qualifier in Lummen.

'Luck played an important role on the day I achieved the standard,' he said. 'I'd never competed in a five-star event - the hurdles were as tall as me.'

On his chances in Hong Kong this summer, Li admitted that just getting there was achievement enough.

'I would be very happy if I can reach the final round in the individual events in Hong Kong,' he said. 'I would never have thought about competing in the Olympic Games when I first started 12 years ago. This is already a great achievement.'