China stumbling on path to Olympic glory at 2022 home games
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At least Jeff Pain knows what is expected of him.
Hired by China for his coaching expertise in the winter sport of skeleton, the Olympic silver medalist for Canada in 2006 has four more years to shape his rookie team of Chinese athletes into ice-sliding champions at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
“We’ve been told it’s gold or nothing,” Pain says. “The other medals are irrelevant.”
Here’s the rub: Wanting to win in dangerous, technically complex sports on snow and ice and actually being equipped to beat established winter-sports powers are very different things.
“It’s not just about putting on a pair of shoes and being fast,” Pain says of skeleton. “You have to be able to bend over, grab a sled, run as fast as you can, dive on it and then get to the bottom without dying.”
The blueprint of throwing money and foreign know-how at hand-picked Chinese athletes is familiar. But results in 2022 are on course to be less spectacular than when Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008. Then, a costly, years-long national medal-mining drive paid off handsomely, with China surging to the top of the gold-medal bragging table.
Chinese Winter Olympians, however, have far bigger leaps to make. Although competitive in a scattering of events, the world’s second-largest economic mega-power after the United States has never been a major winter-sports player. China’s team of 80 athletes in Pyeongchang — its largest since the 2010 Vancouver Games — has, like Team USA, been a striking under-achiever, with just one gold among its nine medals.
As it did for the Summer Games, China has brought foreign coaches on board in array of winter sports, tapping Dutch expertise in speedskating, for example, and Norwegian know-how in cross-country skiing.
Hired in 2015, the year the IOC picked Beijing as the first city to host both summer and winter games, Pain saw China as a land of promise.
“My initial thought when I took this job was: ’Oh my gosh, China has got 1.3 billion people. Let me look at 30,000 of them, and from that we’ll pick 50, and from that we’ll find 10 unbelievably good ones.”
Reality has been sobering. In recruiting for skeleton, Pain found himself promoting a sport almost completely unknown to 130 athletes who turned up for his first tryouts.
“They Googled skeleton to see what it was. A couple of the kids I’ve got on my team had never seen snow, because they are from southern China,” he said. “They are signing up for something they literally have no idea what it is.”
And his top picks all subsequently quit before starting training.
“I think two of the three quit because they Googled skeleton, figured out what it was and said: ‘Uh, no, no thank you.’ And I know one of them quit for sure because his girlfriend wouldn’t let him go.”
Manuel Machata, the German coach hired to build China’s rookie bobsleigh team, faced similar challenges.
“They never had bobsleigh before. It’s not famous. It’s not well-known. It’s very hard to get people to bring athletes in,” he said. His initial group of 24 recruits got their first taste of what they’d let themselves in for when he took them to Whistler, Canada, in 2016.
“That was incredible,” he said. “They saw the track and they were flushed. Then you sit them in a sled and let them drive down. That’s quite amazing.”
He, too, says Chinese officials want him to produce medal-standard bobsledders by 2022, but adds: “You only can do what you can do.”
There have been Chinese breakthroughs and notable performances in Pyeongchang.
Twelve years after its Olympic debut in the sport at the 2006 Turin Games, China got its first snowboarding medal, with silver in women’s halfpipe from Liu Jiayu. In a not-untypical path for Chinese Winter Olympians converted to snow and ice from other sports, she practiced martial arts as a kid. Her initiation to halfpipe included trampoline-jumping with a snowboard strapped on.
In short-track speedskating — by far China’s strongest winter sport, producing 30 of its 53 Winter Olympics medals coming into South Korea — Wu Dajing lowered his own world record in winning the men’s 500 meters.
With bronze over 500 meters, Gao Tingyu also became the first Chinese man to medal in Olympic long-track speedskating. And there were Chinese participants for the first time in several events, including Chang Xinyue’s 20th place in women’s ski jumping.
Li Chunjian, who drove one of two Ferrari-red first-time Chinese entries in two-man bobsleigh, said Pyeongchang was only “the first step” for their fledgling team.
“Very quickly, at the next competitions, we’ll steadily grab the attention of people around the world and let them know that Chinese bobsledding has arrived,” he declared confidently, after placing 26th of the 30 sleds. “Everyone is working hard together to prepare for 2022.”
His brakeman, Wang Sidong, added: “Two years ago, we didn’t even know what bobsledding was.”
Still, overall, China is trending downward. From its high of five golds in 2010, China slipped back to three in 2014 and now just one — Wu, in short-track — in Pyeongchang.
“I’m sure the leadership will be quite upset,” Pain said. “It will be interesting to see what happens in China with their sports system and coaching system and the whole thing in the next few months, because there’s probably a big old shakedown coming.”
In skeleton, where China was represented for the first time by Geng Wenqiang, “we are way behind, to be honest with you,” Pain said. “We haven’t had that quick and robust start that we needed three years ago.”
Chinese bureaucracy has slowed progress, with paperwork delays causing athletes to miss races that could have helped more of them qualify for Pyeongchang, he said.
“So much red tape,” he said. “I kind of joke that every decision takes five approvals and every approval takes a month.”
“The question is: Will they figure it out fast enough? Will they let the experts, i.e. the foreign coaches that they hire — myself being one of those — will they let us have the reins, the control that we need to push things forward as fast they need to be pushed?”
“So far,” he said, “we haven’t been allowed to do much of anything.”