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China farmers swap sheep for skis
IT may be hot outside but that doesn't stop doctors and former shepherds on skis snowploughing on giant white treadmills on the outskirts of Beijing - part of the battalions of workers learning the sport ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
China is scrambling to build enthusiasm for winter sports ahead of the Games with an ambitious goal to increase the number of fans tenfold, to 300 million, by 2022.
The doctors, nurses and former sheep farmers are part of this mammoth effort, training for several days a week over the past year to make the cut as volunteers and workers during the Games.
The training continued through the searing summer in Yanqing district on the outskirts of Beijing, which will host several events in 2022, including Alpine skiing, bobsledding, skeleton, and luge.
Amid balmy temperatures outside, the students stood on skis on two inclined treadmills that were sprayed with water inside a gymnasium.
Lang Enge and his team of 25 farmers and shepherds practised their moves to be able to do "whatever the government arranges for us", such as cable car maintenance work, snow gear repair and operating artificial snow machines.
"Almost all farmers sold their sheep in our village, there are no shepherds now in Yanqing," says Mr Lang, 29.
The sheepherders decided to sell their flocks after the local government told them they could keep them but could no longer take them to the mountains due to overgrazing.
Mr Lang sold his 300 sheep and decided to focus on skiing instead.
The local government finances all the training, promising jobs related to the Winter Olympics. Mr Lang and his friends hope that by learning to ski, they can land permanent jobs in ski resorts after the Olympics.
In the meantime, Mr Lang is working as a temporary traffic and public security employee for the local government. He said other farmers are working as taxi drivers, factory workers or car salesmen.
Doctors and nurses are also training at the same gym, but for a different challenge: working as medical volunteers who can rush down a slope to help an injured athlete.
"It's a challenge for me. I hope to have more time to do my best," said Jiang Wei, 30, a nurse at the local hospital, before jumping into the skiing simulator, wearing elbow and knee pads and a helmet, as an instructor gave her advice.
The farmers appeared more confident on the slope simulator, slowly slaloming on the moving carpet while the doctors and nurses were still grabbing onto a security pole at the bottom of the treadmill.
"I think the people I trained will be suitable for these jobs," said E Yinchun, one of the trainers.
China is not the first country to train medical staff to ski for the Olympic Games, where athletes can get injured by attempting risky jumps and making high-speed turns.
But for the farmers in Yanqing this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a better-paying job.
Mr Lang and his team have left the countryside for good and now they are working for the district office while they prepare for the big event in February 2022.
What will happen after the Games is still uncertain. Especially, he said, now that "there are no sheep farmers in town". AFP