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Exclusive: China in a paralympic spirit

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German-Chinese friendship: Martin Braxenthaler (second to the right) and Baggio Zhong (in the middle).

An interview with Baggio Zhong, founder and CEO of Chinese outdoor brand Kailas, and German Paralympics champion Martin Braxenthaler

China’s sports industry is becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities and challenges of physically disadvantaged sports people in the country. This is partly due to Beijing’s possibly successful bid for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games and the Paralympic Games. Both projects enjoy the support and commitment of ISPO BEIJING and ISPO SHANGHAI.

ISPO has connected two athletes from different cultures on a ski slope: German paralympic champion Martin Braxenthaler and Baggio Zhong of China. Zhong is founder of Kailas, one of China’s leading outdoor brands and bound to a wheelchair since he had a ski accident more than one year ago.

Thanks to the match-making by ISPO and Lukas Meindl, managing partner of the Meindl footwear brand (which is distributed by Kailas in China), the two went to a ski resort at Obertauern in Austria. Credit for this inspiring combination is also due to the late Knut Jaeger, a German outdoor industry veteran and expert on the Chinese business, who passed away on the last day of the ISPO BEIJING in January.

In an exclusive interview with this blog, Braxenthaler and Zhong report on their lessons from their joint ski holidays. Zhong has always been a snow sports enthusiast, but had to learn to exercise in a different way after his severe accident.

Baggio, how did you manage to learn skiing – under different circumstances for the second time in your life?

Baggio Zhong: It was a great experience, and I had the privilege to learn what it means to re-discover the wonderful feeling of being free. Since my accident, my movements have slowed down, but on the slope I enjoy things now like anyone else. I love skiing, and it is quite probable that mono-skiing will remain my favorite sport for years to come.

Martin, were you happy with Baggio, your new student?

Martin Braxenthaler: The guy has an awesome determination, and he wanted to do something outdoors after his accident. The essential thing is that we cannot just talk, but that we feel the urge to do something. I am a licensed ski instructor for physically disadvantaged people, and it was a great pleasure to show to Baggio how much fun one can have on the slope – even when one has to face a handicap.

So, everything was fine with Baggio’s performance?

Martin Braxenthaler: He was quick to learn. The main reason is, he has a fighting spirit and a lot of talent. You can see that in the way he built up his business from scratch. With people who have a real commitment, it’s usually no problem to teach them to ski.

How is it to go skiing with someone like Martin Braxenthaler? Is he a fun guy or a serious teacher? What did you learn from him?

Baggio Zhong: Martin actually seemed more the serious teacher at first – also because of language barrier. Once you get to know him, the picture becomes clearer. He’s more a thinker than an athlete. Martin told me that one appreciates life more when you have to climb a mountain. I very much appreciated the experience, even though I prefer the downhill runs more. I owe him credit for that.

Baggio, you sell mainly outdoor and snow sports products into China. How happy are you with the evolution of ski resorts in your country?

Baggio Zhong: I  have big expectations for winter sports in China. We need to reach a better level, but the industry is evolving at an amazing speed. That is also thanks to investors from tourism, real estate and finance. The ski resorts enjoy here enjoy some good support.

The ski rental business has definitely improved. Including in terms in quality. We now have excellent products on the market. I have to say, however, that the business of ski sales has remained small. The snow sports enthusiast over here still prefers to rent rather than to buy. We see a by far larger opportunity in selling helmets, goggles, apparel and so on. This market is growing substantially in China. For the core hardgoods themselves, please do not underestimate the expenses of shipping by aircraft. That means a lot of money, especially in a country which has a huge territory.

We need the Olympic Winter Games, because they would give us a great chance to develop our business and the community of Chinese sports people as such.”

Baggio Zhong, CEO, Kailas

Beijing is being one of the most important candidates to host the Olympic Winter Games in 2022. The decision will be made by the IOC in July. What are your expectations for the event? How do you compare its potential with the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008.

Baggio Zhong: In China, the government is first in the decision making, when it comes to promote this or that industry. The key-issue is investment in infrastructure, which is crucial to such events. But that is going to be decided by our government. We need the Olympic Winter Games, because they would give us a great chance to develop our business and the community of Chinese sports people as such.

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Martin, have you ever been skiing in China??

Martin Braxenthaler: Not yet – unfortunately. I met Baggio in Shanghai a few weeks ago and it would be great to go skiing together in China too. I think, I will do that at the ISPO BEJING next spring.

Baggio, how would you compare the situation for physically disabled sports people in China now compared with five or ten years ago?

Baggio Zhong: Unfortunately, we have not made as much progress as expected. I’m disappointed to some extent that we don’t yet have barrier-free opportunities to move as is standard in other countries.

This is disappointing in China, where there are only a few places that are more international than the airports serving international destinations. Flight attendants sometimes hesitate when it comes to people who are disabled. I should actually take credit and be paid for my training skills (laughs).

I’m convinced that we will see substantial changes and things improve over the next decade, and I will do my best to support this development. But it will take joint efforts from both the government and disabled people themselves to improve the situation.

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