Sochi Olympics: China strives for world-beater clout at Winter Games, too

Building on Vancouver, Beijing is pumping money into sports most Chinese have not even heard of, with its eye on glory at Sochi and South Korea in 2018.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
Russian soldiers raise China's flag as the Chinese Olympic delegation watches during a team welcoming ceremony before the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

All it took was one slip of the skate earlier this month, and China’s medal prospects at Sochi took a plunge.

Wang Meng, China’s star short track speed skater who won three golds in Vancouver four years ago, broke her ankle in training and is out of this year’s Winter Olympics.

Ms. Wang, on her own, accounted for more than half of China’s gold medals in Vancouver – eloquent testimony to how shallow the Chinese winter sports talent pool still is. But Beijing is pumping money into sports that most Chinese citizens have not even heard of, with its eye on future glory.

Winter sports are not popular in China. Only three of the country’s 30 provinces see enough snow long enough to make skiing possible, and Chinese fans prefer the Summer Games, at which their nation has excelled recently.

“People pay more attention to sports where China has more chances to win,” says Jin Shan, a sports expert at the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. China topped the medal table at the 2008 Olympics and came second to the US in London in 2012.

“People also need to love a sport and take part in it to be really interested,” Mr. Jin adds. “And very few people in China do winter sports.”

That is true enough. But as China’s middle class grows, so does demand for new leisure activities. Ski resorts are popping up in China’s frigid and mountainous northeast, and “as more people get involved, the more success China will have” competitively, predicts Peter Judge, a Canadian who briefly ran China’s aerial freestyle ski team. “But it will take a broader base of active skiers.”

Without that pool of potential talent, China stands little chance in the traditional downhill and cross-country skiing events. Instead, China’s national winter sports administrators have gone for what Mr. Judge calls “low-hanging fruit” where they saw better chances of success.

The country has made itself a world-beater in short track speed skating; its women swept the board in all four events in Vancouver, largely thanks to Wang Meng’s dominance.

China is also a powerhouse in aerial freestyle skiing, a dramatically acrobatic sport into which the Chinese have recruited former gymnasts to great effect. Both the current men’s and women’s world champions are from China, and they are top contenders for gold in Sochi, where they will be in a fierce fight with rivals from another unexpected winter sports nation, Australia.

As the government spends more money on winter sports, it is setting a lot of it aside to tempt good coaches, says Jin, though the authorities do not release any budget figures. And a lot of those coaches come from abroad.

Judge himself handed his post over to another Canadian when he returned home; the biathlon team benefited from former East German champion Klaus Siebert’s coaching, and former Swedish national coach Per-Erik Ronnestrand has worked with the Chinese cross-country team.

Another Canadian, Marcel Rocque, heads the program that has given the Chinese women’s curling team a strong chance to medal in Sochi. On their first Olympic outing in Vancouver, they won bronze.

Seventh in Vancouver 

Though China left Vancouver a very respectable seventh on the medal tables – boosted by gold and silver in the pairs figure skating competition – its best chances of success are still in the more marginal Olympic events.

Medals in the key events in Alpine and cross-country skiing that lie at the heart of traditional winter sport are still beyond China’s reach.

That might change, however, if Beijing is successful in its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. That would spur the development of new training facilities and new pistes, provide unmatched publicity in China for winter sports, and boost their popularity.

“That would be the biggest boost they could hope for,” says Judge. “It would have a huge impact on their ability to win medals in the long term.”

But in the meantime, the words of Chinese Olympic official Cui Dalin as he looked back on the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, still seem apt. “To develop winter sports is a long-term and arduous task.”

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