The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Skating Superpower

  • Share
  • Read Later
When Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao took to the ice in the pairs figure-skating final in Torino last week, most Chinese knew the song they skated to by heart. The Offspring of Dragons celebrates the glory of a mighty civilization. "There's a dragon in the ancient East, its name is China," go the folk song's stirring lyrics. By the time the final standings were tallied in the Olympic competition, the Zhangs' choice of music seemed particularly prescient. Although Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin won the 12th consecutive pairs gold for Russia (or, previously, the Soviet Union), the Chinese nabbed the silver (Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao), bronze (Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo) and fourth place (Pang Qing and Tong Jian)all in a sport China first entered little more than two decades ago. And China's emerging dominance of pairs skating is about to receive a powerful boost: the Russian pair will not be skating in the world championships in Calgary next month because they plan to go pro, leaving the door open for a Chinese sweep in Canada.

China's silver medalists almost didn't make it to the Olympic podium. Just seconds into their routine, the pair attempted a throw quadruple Salchow, a whirlwind move so tricky that no one has ever completed it in competition. Zhang Dan landed in an ungainly split and crashed into the side of the rink. In obvious agony, the tiny 20-year-old hobbled to the side before returning a couple of minutes later. The pair went on to perform a nearly flawless routine, even though Zhang Dan was so sore she could barely complete her runner-up victory lap. "We are the offspring of dragons," a tearful Zhang Hao, 21, told reporters. "It was just like fighting in a battle. We will cherish this silver medal."

The ascendant Chinese have modeled their figure-skating programand, indeed, their entire sports systemafter that of the very country they hope to dethrone. Just as the Soviet Union once measured its worth on the international stage through Olympic medals, so now does China. Coaches comb the countryside looking for suitable kids for the nation's thousands of Soviet-style sports academies, where athletes are given free training in return for intense physical devotion. Even though China has no tradition of ice and snow sports and only started competing in the Winter Olympics in 1980, it won eight medals in Salt Lake City. At the halfway point in Torino, China had already secured six medals, including gold in women's short-track speedskating, and looks almost certain to surpass its 2002 record. This week's action includes several sports in which China has, in a decade, transformed itself from newbie competitor to gold-medal contender, including freestyle aerial skiing, speedskating and other short-track skating events. Its success in the ice rink serves as a global warning that China has already emphatically arrived. "We have a national system, and the country has put a lot of effort into it," head skating coach Yao Bin told Time. For a start, notes Yao, "You can skate for free in China."

Russia, by contrast, is struggling to keep its Olympic luster. After the Soviet Union fell, sports funding dried up. With no income to support them, some athletes found refuge in the crime world. Others, who might normally have passed on their knowledge to the next generation, simply left the country, with top coaches Tatiana Tarasova and Tamara Moskvina both settling in America. Russia went from 23 medals at the 1994 Lillehammer Games to 13 at Salt Lake City in 2002. After Russia's uninspired showing at the last Winter Games, President Vladimir Putin lamented the country's parlous medical statehalf of all Russian children and teenagers were in poor healthand emphasized the need for sports to improve the situation. Calls were made for 20% of former Soviet sport facilities that had been turned into markets to be restored. Four years on, many markets have been shuttered, but few have been converted back into athletic centers. "There used to be more financial support from the government," acknowledges Oleg Vasiliev, a Russian skating coach in Torino who won a pairs gold at Sarajevo in 1984. "The old system is over, and we are building a new system."

The new system relies on private money to bankroll athletes once taken care of by the state. Big Russian businesses like Lukoil and Sberbank have coughed up at least $300,000 each as sport sponsors. Eminent coaches like Tarasova and Moskvina returned from overseas to a Russia where some parents were now willing to pay lavishly for private lessons. Even the Russian Olympic Committee stepped in, offering a $50,000 reward to gold medallists. In figure skating, at least, this commercially driven program is churning out champions. Three nights after the Russian pair claimed gold, Siberian native Evgeny Plushenko, whose childhood rink had closed for lack of funding, captured Russia's fourth consecutive gold in men's figure skating. (Compatriot Irina Slutskaya is also favored to win this week's women's event.) The 23-year-old Plushenko, whose choice of the Godfather theme for his long program was rather cheeky at a Games hosted by Italy, was equally bold on the ice, opening his routine with an awesome combination of a quadruple toe loop, a triple toe loop and a double toe loop, followed by a triple Axel-double toe. Although his athleticism and signature Sex Bomb exhibition routineshe skates to the Tom Jones song wearing a skin-colored muscle suithave made Plushenko a pin-up star back home, the Russian tellingly avoided paying homage to the state as Soviet athletes once felt obliged to do. "I have a great coach," said Plushenko, dodging a question about whether his victory was rooted in the Russian sports system. "I have also something inside me."

The Chinese figure-skating team presented a more patriotic front. "The skating spirit of the pairs teams will inspire other Chinese athletes to train harder for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing," predicted Wang Yitao, secretary general of the Chinese delegation in Torino. Wang surely must be pleased: Back in 1995, China's State General Administration of Sport published an "Olympic Glory Winning Plan" that included figure skating, short-track speedskating and speedskating. By the end of the first week in Torino, China had captured medals in all three sports. The offspring of the dragons were off to a fiery start.