(Bloomberg) -- China’s most successful Winter Olympics team ever is a motley lineup that includes the son of hockey legend Chris Chelios, a former child actor, and a Louis Vuitton model, and it could be the future of sports in the country.
While China has long been dominant at the summer games, it had never enjoyed the same success in winter disciplines because it lacked a developed system of coaches, willing pupils 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 went on search at home and abroad for winners.
That formula for winning has brought the country a record number of gold medals in the Winter Olympics and its success could signal a new direction for how China develops sporting talent in the future. Still, it’s a strategy that’s fraught with uncertainty as it contends both with growing nationalism in China and a strong reliance on training up champions through a state system.
“What China has tried to do is -- it has tried to fast track sporting success,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of global sport at Emlyon Business School in France. “This is a way of preventing embarrassment, saving face, making sure that they do win medals.”
‘Ripped a Small Hole’
The traditional state-driven system has long relied on identifying children who have potential and then putting them through a rigorous training regime, and has been extremely successful in sports such as weightlifting and diving. In last year’s Tokyo Olympics, China took home 38 gold medals, just one less than top-ranked U.S.
Winter sports like snowboarding and skiing however, tend to reward traits like freestyle individualism and artistry, which the state system has struggled to teach. China had already wanted to encourage more home-grown talent outside of the system since the 1980s, but the strategy only started to pay off recently, said Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at the University of St. Louis-Missouri who researches sport in China.
China hit the jackpot with Su Yiming, a snowboarder from northern Jilin province who won a gold and silver medal just a few days shy of his 18th birthday. Su was a successful child actor who only decided to pursue snowboarding full-time when he was 14, after China won the Olympics bid. Su, whose grandparents wanted him to pursue an acting career, was scouted in a national program in 2018 that sought out athletes in a wide range of sports, according to a documentary shown last year by state broadcaster CCTV. About one-fifth of Chinese athletes at the Winter Olympics came up through this program, newspaper People’s Daily reported Wednesday.
Unlike typical Chinese athletes, Su was already well-known in snow sports circles, had sponsorships with major brands and led a peripatetic lifestyle, including spending time in Japan with his Japanese coach.
A column published in influential Chinese business publication Caixin after Su won his second medal said the snowboarder had “ripped a small hole” in China’s state sports system and will change history by opening the door for more athletes like him.
“No matter if it’s snowboarding, acting, or my other life goals, I have different ideas about them all,” Su said on Feb. 15 after winning gold. “I’ve been trying to show my different sides to you all in order to present a diverse version of myself.”
China’s other pathway to Winter Olympics glory is the naturalization of foreigners, a strategy that’s been adopted perhaps most enthusiastically by the tiny, oil-rich nation of Qatar, which has systematically recruited athletes mainly from Africa. Still, for a country with a mostly homogeneous population with extremely strict naturalization laws, the presence of non-Chinese athletes competing for China is a particularly striking one.
The ideal foreign-born athlete might be someone like Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old freestyle skier and fashion model born in the U.S. to an American dad and a Chinese mom, who decided in 2019 to compete for China in the Olympics. In other disciplines, most notably ice hockey, China came up with some unusual -- potentially rule-bending -- ways of bringing on talent.
Getting a competitive hockey team together for the Olympics was a major priority for China, which did not want to be embarrassed on the ice. It created a professional hockey team, the Kunlun Red Star, which plays in Russia. Everyone on the Chinese Olympics hockey team plays for Red Star, including both 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 goes by the Chinese phonetic translation of his name, Jieke Kailiaosi, at the games.
Being a foreign face “could be perceived 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 some accomplished person who, in a sense, endorsed China,” Brownell said.
China lost 8-0 to the U.S., but managed to lose to Germany by only 3-2. They were later knocked out of the tournament 7-2 by Canada.
The citizenship status of many of the foreign athletes remain unclear, however, and it’s a question that has assumed great importance during the Olympics because of China’s strict rules against dual citizenship.
When asked on Feb. 9, Chelios said the question would have be answered by the Chinese staff. Gu and her representatives have also repeatedly dodged questions about her nationality.
The International Olympic Committee requires that athletes be citizens of the country they represent, though several American players on the Chinese hockey team have said they retained their U.S. citizenship. IOC spokesman Mark Adams said “it happens all the time by the way where people are changing their nationalities” when asked about the citizenship status of the China hockey players.
But the foreign-recruitment strategy still carries risks at time when nationalism is rapidly intensifying in China. While success on the level of Gu -- who has won a gold and silver medal -- ensures popular adulation, those who fail can expect much harsher treatment. Zhu Yi, a Chinese figure skater also born in the U.S., was targeted with abuse online after she fell repeatedly in competition.
Further down the line, it remains to be seen how much the Chinese public will embrace foreign-born athletes. Chadwick, who has studied how China built its soccer team, said some Brazilian players who had naturalized to play for China later returned home and regained citizenship after their careers fizzled out. According to Chadwick, the ideal sports star is still the “Han archetype who looks like, speaks like and behaves like the kind of Chinese athlete that the government would want them to be.”
Even for Gu, who is idolized by millions and lauded by state media, the future is not certain. A recent essay by Hu Xijin, the outspoken former editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, warned that Chinese people should avoid portraying Gu as a patriot because it’s uncertain where her loyalties will lie in the future.
“China’s national honor and credibility cannot be risked, and the country’s room for maneuver must be greater than that of any individual,” wrote Hu.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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