Meng Quanwei celebrates to win the FEI World Cup Tianjin leg on May 1. (Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn)
Rising talent Meng Quanwei sets sights on show jumping's pinnacle
Alex Hua Tian, China's first equestrian Olympian, may still be the nation's only household name in the sport, but an ambitious group of young Chinese riders are on a mission to change that.
Show jumper Meng Quanwei is one of the brightest of the new breed, spurred on by the sport's dramatic development in China as more high-quality tournaments hasten the emergence of young talent.
"I'm preparing for the upcoming Asian Games in Jakarta," said 23-year-old Meng during an exclusive interview with China Daily.
"My ambition is the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It's a dream for every rider. Now I'm on the national team and I hope I can qualify for the Olympic Games."
Meng has trained with four-time Olympic Gold medalist Ludger Beerbaum in Germany since 2015, and credits his European stints as crucial to his progress.
"Despite the growth of Chinese equestrianism, there's still a gap between the sport in China and in Europe," said Meng.
"In Europe, there are tournaments every weekend, which is still unimaginable in China. There is also a comprehensive development system in Europe.
"Although horse riding is part of Chinese culture, modern equestrian sport is from Europe."
Meng began his career as a member of the Inner Mongolia equestrian team five years ago with the aim of competing in the National Games of China. That goal was achieved last year in Tianjin, although he failed to make the podium.
"My dream came true competing at the National Games last year," he said. "It's a pity that I couldn't lift any trophy because my gear was broken during the competition, but I also gained more experience in terms of focusing on every small detail."
That dedication has resulted in a steady stream of silverware for Meng.
He claimed the 150cm title at the Tianjin stop of the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup China League in May, and first place in the team and individual events at the 2017 CSI 2* Longines Beijing World Cup 140cm First Stop and Second Stop as well as the 150cm team title at 2016 National Championship.
Having begun his career straight after high school, Weng's academic life has taken an inevitable hit.
"Equestrianism is a time-consuming sport, and if a young rider wants to turn pro and keep training, he will not have enough time to take care of school work," said Tantai Weiwei, Meng's mother.
"How to balance education and a professional career is a difficult question for many riders and is one of the big issues facing equestrianism's development in China, because not every parent can make that hard decision.
"But it should not be a zero-sum game between education and equestrianism. Actually, most of the world-class riders are well educated. Some even have a second profession apart from being a top rider."
Meng plans to resume his studies after next year's Asian Games and hopes to major in economics and management.
"Equestrianism is not only about sport but also about business operation, and I want to learn more," said Meng.
Riding certainly seems to be a business worth getting involved in.
According to data released at the Sino-Europe Horse Industry Exchange Seminar in Shanghai in April, there were about 906 equestrian clubs in China in 2016. A year and a half later, that number has jumped to 1,452.
In 2017, membership of China's equestrian clubs topped one million, among which 52 percent are active members.
Still, equestrianism is hardly the sport of the masses and is often accused of being an elitist pursuit.
Meng, however, draws an analogy with motorsport to dispute the stereotype.
"Equestrianism is just like Formula One racing," said Meng.
"It's not a cheap thing to run an F1 team, however, and its not for everyone. There are Formula Two, Formula Three and karting competitions, too. It's a pyramid.
"To promote equestrianism's development, we should not just focus on the top, but focus more on how to expand the foundation of the pyramid."