China made no secret ahead of this year’s Olympics that part of its mission in hosting the event was to prove its prowess in winter sports. As part of that effort, the Chinese Olympic Committee hired more than 50 leading foreign coaches to transform its young athletes into world-beaters.
The most high-profile recruit was the Norwegian biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. His haul of 13 medals over six Olympics, including eight golds, in a sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting is the biggest by a man in any Winter Games discipline.
The recruitment of Bjoerndalen, 48, after he retired from competition in 2018 highlights China’s long-term ambition to use the Games as a launch pad to become a leading winter sports contender, able to compete against the European and North American countries that dominate many events.
That effort has had some success: China has enjoyed its best Winter Games, winning its 12th medal and sixth gold on Tuesday as Su Yiming, coached by Japanese Yasuhiro Sato, became the first Chinese athlete to win an Olympic snowboarding event.
But Beijing believes sports such as cross-country skiing and biathlon, which offer a combined 23 medal events, are a crucial route to ascending to the top of the table.
Mark Dreyer, the Beijing-based author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best, said Bjoerndalen was the most respected foreign winter sports coach in China. “He’s the most powerful, he’s been pushing harder than anyone to get things done and he’s generally seen — for a foreigner — fairly untouchable,” he said.
“After two or three years, a lot of coaches get frustrated at the lack of change they are able to bring in and then they leave or get fired,” he added. With Bjoerndalen, “they listen to him in a way that foreign coaches are not always listened to”.
The host nation’s efforts in biathlon have not yet borne fruit in Beijing — the team’s highest individual result has been Cheng Fangming’s 32nd-place finish in the men’s sprint — but “biathlon is the future in China”, Bjoerndalen told the Financial Times at the Zhangjiakou Biathlon Centre, three hours north-west of Beijing.
“Our goal was definitely to catch a medal here . . . but I don’t give up before the last race is done,” he said.
The Norwegian said his athletes needed another Olympics to mature, while coronavirus pandemic restrictions in China meant they were unable to travel to world cup events, limiting their chances to judge their fitness and ability against the world’s best.
“We have done some of the job,” Bjoerndalen said. “But it was very challenging, this corona situation, because we locked down for two years.”
For some Chinese athletes in Beijing, however, the restrictions were a competitive advantage. Yan Wengang, who won China’s first medal in sliding sports with a bronze in the men’s skeleton on Friday, said he was able to complete more than 500 runs on the course ahead of the Games, something foreign competitors could not do.
But his coach, the Austrian former skeleton world champion Andreas Schmid, said it would take more time to consistently beat Germany, the leading force in bobsleigh, luge and skeleton.
“These nations have traditions in winter sports. Germany has four tracks in the country,” he said. “They start the sport at 12, 16 years old and they move on. For our guys, it was a new experience to do something they’re not used to. You need ice time, ice time, ice time, experience, experience, experience. This is what China doesn’t have yet.”
Asked how China could improve its performance against the Nordic countries, Yan Jiarong, a spokesperson for the Beijing organising committee, said one of the legacies of these Olympics would be the instructors who had been hired. “We’ve introduced the programme of winter sports in communities and in schools in China, so we do have more professionals in sports, including the trainers and the coaches,” she said.
But Bjoerndalen’s appointment has been controversial in his native Norway. China has been accused of a mass repression campaign in Xinjiang against the mainly Muslim Uyghur minority, prompting the US and a number of other western governments to launch a diplomatic boycott of the Games.
The human rights group Amnesty International Norway told the local newspaper VG that Bjoerndalen was “being used by a dictatorship”.
The coach has avoided politics, saying: “I don’t have enough knowledge about it. So I stay 100 per cent focused about sport all the time.”
Bjoerndalen’s contract with the Chinese Olympic Committee expires in March, but he wants to stay on to work with some of his younger athletes. “But the development of the athletes is the key point. If I can help them, I wish to stay with the team,” he said.
There is one condition, however: he hopes China will focus all its energy on athlete development, after mitigated the spread of Covid-19 was the priority of the Beijing Games.
“In top sport, you can’t make compromises. If you start to make compromises, you can’t have success,” he said.
If an agreement can be found with Chinese sporting officials, he added, “anything is possible in this country”.