You can find the introduction to this three-part series on the development of the Chinese ski program here.
Creating a Generation of Skiers
China, pursuing Olympic medals on home snow, signed deals in 2018 to train Chinese skiers in Norway and Finland. The first hurdle would be filling these programs with potential skiers.
To that end, a talent building program was initiated and young professional athletes in the second tier of rowing, kayaking, and running were assessed. Favorable candidates were given the opportunity to switch to cross country skiing, and with it a chance at making the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
The search was also on for hidden talents, and the public was invited to join the pool of athletes being considered for intensive training as cross country skiers.
When Kristian Bjune Sveen arrived in Xinjiang Province in 2017 he thought he was going to an interview. Instead, he found 100 candidates lined up to be tested for the Swix China team he was hired to create. Next it was onto schools, where Sveen would find his diamonds in the rough.
Also traveling to China to find skiers was Tor-Arne Hetland, coach of the Meråker contingent, who was invited to Beijing in the fall of 2018 to identify future skiers. He told the South China Morning Post that he was asked to seek out “athletes that could run well and had strong physical endurance.”
Zhang Yuanyuan was one such athlete. The eighteen year old kayaker from Sichuan Province had never seen snow and yet was selected to move to Norway to train for biathlon.
Throughout the Chinese endurance world, promising athletes were funneled into skiing. One such athlete was Yeersen Shiwohen. An ultrarunner, he won a 168k marathon and impressed a businessman who introduced him to the local sports management. Despite having never skied before, and believing that it was “impossible” to ski uphill, Shiwohen was soon on his way to Finland to become part of China’s skiing generation.
The new skiers were enticed with more than Olympic glory, they were also offered competitive salaries. Veikko Halonen, the CEO of Vuokatti Sport said to Yle, “With that money, the whole family will probably live in their home country. Motivation is high, even though they do not know when they will be able to visit home.”
Shiwohen was one of 134 Chinese athletes sent in 2018 to Vuokatti to learn skiing. Of them, only twenty had ever skied before. Many were from subtropical Shanghai. The government officials in charge of identifying talents back in China had only a loose understanding of the qualities they should be looking for, and believing that upper body strength was paramount, leaned heavily on selecting rowers.
From the start, the Chinese project in Vuokatti—called “Zero to Hero”—was enormously ambitious. One of China’s primary snow sports coaches, Glenn Lindholm of Finland, recounted to Swiss news outlet Tages-Anzeiger that in the beginning, “It was difficult for them to just stand on cross-country skis.”
In Norway, apart from the Trondheim group, the situation was much the same. “The first time I saw them on rollerskis, I thought ‘this is not possible,’ Anita Moen told NRK of the early days at the Trysil camp.
“I was skeptical, scared,” said Moen in the report. “They struggled to control the speed. There were abrasions on the legs and arms even though we used protective equipment.”
In Vuokatti, coaches chafed at the insistence of Chinese officials that the skiers be outfitted with the finest equipment on the market, which only made their work harder. “Only the best is good enough for the project,” Lindholm said. “Money doesn’t matter.”
The Philip Boit Connection
The Chinese skiing project recalled an earlier effort in the mid-90s by Nike to introduce elite Kenyan runners to cross country skiing prior to the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
At its core, the idea was little more than a marketing gimmick dreamed up by Nike executives in Portland, Oregon as a means to help promote their venture into winter wear. As Mark Bossardet, then Nike’s Director of Global Athletics put it to the New York Times, “We were sitting around the office one day and we said, ‘What if we took Kenyan runners and transferred their skills to cross country skiing?’”
Philip Boit at the time was trying to make it in the ultra competitive Kenyan running scene and believing that “cross country” must have something to do with running, he signed up.
Before long, he was on a plane to Finland with a compatriot. Boit did not consider his task to be a marketing ploy, and he took his ski training seriously. He would end up spending the next two years there training for Nagano, supported by Nike.
Ultimately, the Nike project was an experiment: If you take a talented Kenyan runner and give him a coach and two years in Finland to learn skiing, what will happen?
The result proved that two years was not enough. In the 10 k classic at Nagano, Boit finished last, some twenty minutes behind Bjørn Dælhe. Though Boit was a talented runner—he could run 1,500m in 3:46.5—that prowess proved not to be a predictor of success. As Bossardet conceded, “As it turned out, the most important aspect is technique.”
Unlike the anecdotal knowledge from the Nike experiment, the large and well funded Team China project in Meråker offered a unique opportunity for research: that of talent transfer from other sports to nordic skiing. The study was conducted by the Norwegian Institute of Science and technology (NTNU), and researchers included Øyvind Sandbakk and Rune Talsnes. It was the first systematic and scientific study of talent transfer ever written about, in any sport.
The researchers followed the journey of 24 Chinese athletes aged between 17 and 21 years old that had been selected from a pool of middle distance runners, rowers, and kayakers.
After a few months of introductory ski lessons, the athletes were subjected to a battery of tests in the beginning, middle, and end of a six month period of time. VO2max, double poling power, and rollerskiing efficiency on a treadmill, were among the many tests used to assess the athletes.
The end result was clear: the runners improved far more than the rowers, and the men improved more than the women.
The runners did best, it was surmised, because they adapted more easily to the endurance training and were injured less often. While the physiology tests told a clear story of improving strength, capacity, and efficiency, they obscured the point of the whole endeavor: how fast they could ski.
In an email to FasterSkier, Talsnes confirmed the validity of using specific markers to assess the progress of the new skiers as athletes, writing, “I would say most of the performance and physiological indices that were assessed in the monitoring of these athletes are valid indicators of [cross country] skiing performance. In fact, we have recently published a study on the validity of such tests in a group of Norwegian junior/senior [cross country] skiers.”
Because the study was conducted over the winter months, Talsnes wrote that a rollerskiing time trial was not possible, and that a ski event would have been subject to shifting conditions.
The study also assessed the coaches’ perspectives. With their names removed for anonymity, the researchers managed to gather some interesting insights.
There was general consensus among the coaches that those who were self motivated did best. The Chinese athletes did improve remarkably, both in Meråker and elsewhere.
In Trysil, Anita Moen was impressed with the results, telling NRK “I did not think it would be possible to get [the athletes] to learn the technique. And that they should ski fast already for the winter. It was such a short time. But there I was wrong.”
Yet as much as the athletes improved, they were still not at a level to compete on the biggest stage. As a coach said in the NTNU study , “Many of them have physical capacities better than their Norwegian peers in cross country skiing, without this reflecting… in a competition. It’s the ski feeling, how to go on skis. They still miss this feeling.”
To the researchers, the coaches expressed their skepticism that the project would bear fruit. “…regarding talent transfer and [nordic] skiing, it’s something I wouldn’t recommend.”
They also felt that their efforts were hampered by expectations of speedy results, a lack of control over selecting athletes, and uncertainty over how long the program would last.
“This was a short time period with [cross country] ski-specific training,” Talsnes wrote, “and although the most responding athletes had large development in sport-specific performance, there is a long way to a World Cup and Olympic level. However, I think it might work with the right potential [athletes] and a sufficient time perspective.”
Although there were questions about whether the athletes would be ready by Beijing, results have ultimately proved a degree of success for the Meråker program. “Interestingly,” wrote Talsnes, “the best Chinese athlete during [the] skiathlon for men in the Olympics was a part of this project. He [Liu Rongsheng] first started skiing in February 2019 and is a previous runner. He became 38th and actually beat Klæbo which I think is a bit funny…”
In Vuokatti, the athletes came with an entourage of Chinese staff: fifteen coaches, along with translators and government minders. The contingent was so large that a “Chinese village” was created, replete with a restaurant.
Occasionally, there were culture clashes, though the misunderstandings were mainly between the Norwegian and Finnish coaches and Chinese officials.
Tor-Arne Hetland outlined an episode of discord between himself and Chinese officials when he vetoed a requested 10k time trial to compare his athletes with those in China for placement on the elite team. “It was nonsense!” Hetland told the South China Morning Post. “The snow would have been different from place to place, and they would be [skiing] on completely different tracks.”
A larger controversy at the Meråker public library overshadowed coaching disagreements, and brought the fragility of ski diplomacy to the fore.
Meråker is a small municipality with a population of just over 1000 residents in the Trøndeleg region east of Trondheim. To ease the stay of the around 40 Chinese athletes, the library had a shipment of books in Mandarin sent from the Oslo public library system.
Included in the titles sent were a few on subjects that were banned in China, including one on the Falun Gong — an outlawed Chinese religious movement. Chinese officials with the team repeatedly insisted that the books be removed. Anne Marken, the librarian in Meråker told Andresseavisen “They have said that if any of the Chinese skiers are taken with these books, they are afraid that they risk a labor camp or prison in China.”
Marken refused. The matter made headlines in Norway and helped to reignite the public debate over whether Norway was complicit in human rights abuses in China. Beyond the squabble over a few forbidden books in Meråker was the larger shadow that the salmon-for-skiing agreement had cast.
The philosophical differences between Norwegian and Finnish coaches and those of China stemmed in part from China’s contrasting sporting model that was built in the image of the Soviet system and has retained much of its flavor—a focus on authoritarian, sport specific development that begins at an early age.
Much like the Russian ski team, which is separated into four separate training groups, the Chinese Ski Team was equally diffused. Confusingly, there were two separate entities competing with each other to create skiers. The Winter Sports Group had the Chinese Ski Association under its umbrella, and oversaw some of the more elite programs. Competing with the Chinese Ski Association was Team China, which was unrelated other than that its funding also came from the State.
To further muddy the waters, Taiwan and Hong Kong have their own ski associations, and teams. Both compete as separate nations in the Olympics despite being, by varying degrees, part of the same country.
It was Team China that signed most of the contracts to train new skiers. The result was that hundreds of skiers, ranging from barely able to ski, to competing on the World Cup, were all somewhat on the national team.
“I do not know how many teams the Chinese have called ‘national team’,” said Bernhard Rønning who ran the Trondheim based group. He clarified to Aftenposten, “We are the ones… going to the World Cup.”
Chinese sporting officials did not take an entirely hands off approach when their athletes were abroad. At the end of every week, Lindholm was required to send a report back to Beijing outlining the progress of the skiers. As a result, much focus was placed on physiological tests. “We could work more efficiently if we were only allowed to,” said Lindholm.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.