By Duncan Mackay
British Sports Internet Writer of the Year
China's athletics team are to base themselves in Leeds in the final build-up to the London 2012 Olympics after the Yorkshire city beat off fierce competition from other regions in Britain to secure a deal.
In the first deal to be signed by any Chinese sport with any UK city ahead of the Games, the Chinese Athletic Association (CAA) will base their Olympic team at Leeds Metropolitan University as they prepare for the world's biggest sporting event next year.
Under the agreement, an estimated 50 athletes and officials will be based at the University as they train and acclimatise to the conditions in England shortly before the Olympics begin on July 27, 2012.
The team is expected to include Liu Xiang, the 2004 Olympic 110 metres hurdles champion who is rebuilding his career after he was forced to pull out through injury before his opening race of the 2008 Games in Beijing.
China topped the 2008 Beijing Olympic medal table with 100 medals, 51 of them gold.
But athletics was among the country's weakest sports.
With Liu failing to win the anticipated gold medal, the squad of 77 were unable to celebrate an Olympic champion in the iconic Bird's Nest Stadium.
They won only two bronze medals, from hammer thrower Zhang Wenxiu and marathon runner Zhou Chunxiu (pictured left).
Dean of the Carnegie Faculty at Leeds Metropolitan University Gareth Davies is nevertheless celebrating what is still a coup.
"We are delighted to be working with the Chinese athletics team and are looking forward to hosting world-class athletes on our campus; it will give our students a great buzz to be training alongside Olympic hopefuls," he said.
"This is just one example of the benefits that London 2012 can bring to our region and we are keen to maximise the benefits for the city of Leeds."
As well as training at Leeds Metropolitan University's Headingley campus, the squad will also have access to the John Charles Centre for Sport.
Mr Du, the vice-president and secretary general of the CAA, is confident that Leeds will provide the ideal environment for his country's athletes.
"Leeds is a great city," he said.
"I have looked at the athletics training facilities at Leeds Metropolitan University and the John Charles Centre for Sport and accommodation we plan to use.
"I am confident Leeds will provide an ideal training base for our athletes as we prepare for the London 2012 Olympic Games."
The agreement builds on the strong existing links between Leeds and China.
The city has already enjoyed a 23-year partner city agreement with Hangzhou in the Zhejiang Province that has helped develop business, educational and civic partnerships.
There is also a sizeable Chinese population living in Leeds.
Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Leeds both attract Chinese students to Leeds to complete a wide range of courses, while Leeds Met deliver a number of degree courses in China in partnership with a number of Chinese universities.
Leeds will benefit financially from hosting the Chinese team, while it also hoped there will be further benefits in terms of trade, tourism and strengthening cultural ties, which is the main reason that so many cities in Britain have been trying to sign deals with them.
"This is absolutely fantastic news for the city of Leeds – a major coup to be the first UK city to say we are hosting a Chinese Olympic team," said Lord Mayor of Leeds Councillor Jim McKenna.
"To be hosting athletes from such a major sporting nation is a great reflection not only on the fantastic facilities we have to offer but everything we have to offer as a city and place to stay. We look forward to welcoming our very special guests."
Sebastian Coe, the London 2012 chairman, who grew up in Sheffield, was also pleased with the deal.
"Pre-Games training camps provide essential preparation for every athlete, and Chinese competitors will enjoy world class facilities in Leeds," he said.
"Having grown up in the county, I'm delighted that Yorkshire people, and especially the Chinese community, will be sharing in the excitement of the Games in their own back yard.
"I was inspired by the many 2012-related activities I witnessed across West Yorkshire last year and this is further evidence that the whole country is sharing in the benefits from the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
"We look forward to following on from Beijing 2008 and hosting a Games for everyone in 2012."
Yorkshire have already signed deals with a number of countries.
Serbia is to base its whole team there next year, splitting them between Leeds and Sheffield.
The Dutch swimming team are planning to use Leeds' facilities before 2012.
Brazil's judo team and the United States diving squad have also agreed to train in Sheffield.
Last month they signed a deal for the United States diving team to prepare there before London 2012 while they had concluded an agreement with Serbia in May 2009 for their teams to use Sheffield.
"This signing is a huge coup for Yorkshire and I am thrilled that the Chinese athletics aeam, part of one of the most successful Olympic and Paralympic nations, has chosen Leeds as their base for training ahead of London 2012," said Gary Verity, the chief executive of Welcome to York and the chairman of Yorkshire Gold.
"As the team and their families come here in the lead up to the Games we are confident they will enjoy a big Yorkshire welcome and return home with a wonderful experience of the county."
There is optimism in Yorkshire that more Chinese teams will want to train there.
The Chinese Olympic Committee visited Sheffield as long ago as September 2009 to investigate what facilities they offered.
"This is the seventh team signed up to be based in Yorkshire and we are very hopeful of attracting more as we lead up to one year to go to the Games."