Late-bloomer Li takes a leap over financial barrier in pursuit of dream

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2008, 12:00am

Chinese showjumper Li Zhenqiang has spent more time in the final month before the Games watching videos of other riders than he has honing his own skills on horseback.

Li, 40, has had just one horse, Jumpy, to rely on for daily training at his camp in the Belgian countryside. To avoid exhausting his only partner for the Olympic competition, he rode the horse for just 30 to 40 minutes each day and spent the rest of the time studying competition tapes.

'It's particularly difficult with just one horse [for training], but I have no other option,' said Li.

Born into a farming family in Dongguan, in Guangdong province, Li did not have a chance to ride until the age of 27.

However, he has turned into a late bloomer, discovering a real passion for the sport and abandoning his career as a businessman in 1996 to become a full-time rider.

It didn't take long for him to become one of the top riders in the country. In 2001, he claimed a silver medal at the National Games in Guangzhou and represented China at the 2002 Pusan Asian Games where he achieved his best international result with a sixth-placed finish.

After his adoption of the sport, the next most difficult decision for Li came in the run-up to the Games.

'To qualify for the Olympics, I knew I had to buy a new horse but the cost - at least Euro1 million (HK$12.2 million) - was an astronomical sum of money for me,' he said, recalling the quandary he found himself in before taking the plunge.

After many sleepless nights, Li made up his mind to take part.

'The Games are being held in my homeland and I had a very strong feeling I just had to go for it,' he said.

So he borrowed about six million yuan from the business community in his hometown and sought sponsorship to buy Jumpy, at the anticipated cost of Euro1 million.

Despite only three months of training with his new horse, Li achieved an excellent six-penalty point result in a five-star event in Lummen, Belgium, in May, qualifying him for the Olympics.

'It was my first five-star competition,' he said. 'It still feels like a dream.

'I think luck played an important role that day. It's impossible to expect the same luck in the Olympics. I just hope to be able to get into the individual finals.'

As for finding a way to pay back that hefty loan, Li hopes to kill two birds with one stone by turning his passion for equestrianism into a business and promoting the sport in China.

While most showjumpers have teams of horses for training and competition, Li Zhenqiang has just: 1