China’s bet on new Olympic strategy pays off in gold medals
China’s most successful Winter Olympics team of all time is a ragtag roster that includes the son of hockey legend Chris Chelios, a former child actor and a Louis Vuitton model, and it could be the future sports in the country.
While China has long dominated the summer games, it has never enjoyed the same success in the winter disciplines as it lacks a developed system of coaches, student volunteers and familiarity with ice and snow sports. To build this year’s 178-person delegation, more than double the number of athletes it sent to Pyeongchang in 2018, China set out to search for winners at home and abroad.
This winning formula has brought the country a record number of Winter Olympics gold medals and its success could signal a new direction for how China develops sports talent in the future. Yet it is a strategy fraught with uncertainty as it faces both growing nationalism in China and a heavy reliance on training champions through a state system.
“What China has been trying to do is accelerate sporting success,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of global sport at Emlyon Business School in France. “It’s a way to avoid embarrassment, to save face, to make sure they win medals.”
“I made a small hole”
The traditional state-run system has long relied on identifying children with potential and then rigorously training them, and has been extremely successful in sports such as weightlifting and diving. At the Tokyo Olympics last year, China won 38 gold medals, one shy of the top-ranked United States.
However, winter sports like snowboarding and skiing tend to reward traits like freestyle individualism and artistry, which the state system struggles to teach. China has already wanted to nurture more homegrown talent outside the system since the 1980s, but the strategy only recently started to bear fruit, said Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of St. Louis- Missouri who studies sports in China. .
China hit the jackpot with Su Yiming, a snowboarder from northern Jilin province who won a gold and silver medal just days shy of his 18th birthday. Su was a successful child actor who didn’t decide to take up snowboarding full-time until he was 14, after China won the Olympics bid. Su, whose grandparents wanted him to pursue an acting career, was spotted on a nationwide program in 2018 that sought athletes in a wide range of sports, according to a documentary aired last year by the channel. CCTV public television. About one-fifth of Chinese athletes at the Winter Olympics have participated in the program, People’s Daily reported on Wednesday.
Unlike typical Chinese athletes, Su was already well known in snow sports circles, had sponsorships with major brands, and led an itinerant life, including spending time in Japan with his Japanese coach.
An op-ed published in influential Chinese business publication Caixin after Su won his second medal said the snowboarder had ‘cut a small hole’ in China’s state sports system and will change history by opening the door to more athletes like him.
“No matter if it’s snowboarding, acting or my other life goals, I have different ideas about them,” Su said on Feb. 15 after winning gold. “I tried to show you my different sides in order to present a diverse version of myself.”
China’s other route to Winter Olympics glory is through the naturalization of foreigners, a strategy that has perhaps been most enthusiastically embraced by the small, oil-rich country of Qatar, which has consistently recruited athletes mainly from Africa. Yet for a country with an essentially homogeneous population and extremely strict naturalization laws, the presence of non-Chinese athletes competing for China is particularly striking.
The ideal foreign-born athlete might be someone like Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old American-born freestyle skier and model to an American father and Chinese mother, who decided in 2019 to compete for China at the Olympics. In other disciplines, including ice hockey, China has come up with unusual – potentially against the rules – ways to attract talent.
Building a competitive hockey team for the Olympics was a top priority for China, which didn’t want to be embarrassed on the ice. He created a professional hockey team, the Kunlun Red Star, which plays in Russia. All members of the Chinese Olympic hockey team play for Red Star, including foreigners of Chinese descent and Americans with no known Chinese ancestry. One is Jake Chelios, son of former Olympian and Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios, who uses the Chinese phonetic translation of his name, Jieke Kailiaosi, during the games.
Being a foreign face “could be viewed quite favorably because they don’t see you representing the nation in the sense that you were born and raised in China. But rather, you were an accomplished person who, in a sense, endorsed China,” Brownell said.
China lost 8-0 to the United States, but managed to lose to Germany by only 3-2. They were then eliminated from the tournament 7-2 by Canada.
The challenges of nationalism
The citizenship status of many foreign athletes remains unclear, however, and it’s an issue that has taken on great importance during the Olympics due to China’s strict rules against dual citizenship.
When asked on February 9, Chelios said the question would have been answered by Chinese staff. Gu and his representatives have also repeatedly dodged questions about his nationality.
The International Olympic Committee requires athletes to be citizens of the country they represent, although several American players on the Chinese hockey team have said they have retained their American citizenship. IOC spokesman Mark Adams said “it happens all the time by the way where people change their nationality” when asked about the citizenship status of Chinese hockey players.
But the overseas recruitment strategy still carries risks at a time of rapidly escalating nationalism in China. While success at the level of Gu – who won both gold and silver – ensures popular adulation, those who fail can expect much harsher treatment. Zhu Yi, a Chinese figure skater also born in the United States, has been the target of online abuse after repeatedly falling in competition.
Later, it remains to be seen how well the Chinese public will welcome the foreign-born athletes. Chadwick, who has studied how China built its soccer team, said some Brazilian players who naturalized to play for China later returned home and regained their citizenship after their careers failed. According to Chadwick, the ideal sports star is still “the archetypal Han who looks, talks and behaves like the kind of Chinese athlete the government would want him to be.”
Even for Gu, idolized by millions and praised by state media, the future is uncertain. A recent essay by Hu Xijin, the outspoken former editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, warned that Chinese people should avoid portraying Gu as a patriot because it is unclear where her loyalties will lie. to come up.
“China’s national honor and credibility cannot be jeopardized, and the country’s room for maneuver must be greater than that of any individual,” Hu wrote.
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