After speed skating, the quality of China's winter sports program falls off sharply. Among the best of its figure skaters are two Harbiners, Hao Xia Lie, 21, and Liu Lu Yang, 20, who took up the sport at the Doubei District Spare-Time Sports School a decade ago. Hao eventually made it to Sarajevo and finished 19th ice dancing with his partner Xi Hongyan. Shortly after the 1984 Games, coach Li Hong brought Hao and Liu together. "They have been our Chinese pairs champions almost since that day." she says. "They are special together."
Hao and Liu won the gold medal at the Winter Asian Games in 1986, but as Hao says, "That is only Asia. We know there's a gap between us and international champions. We go to Calgary to learn."
"China has no legacy in figure skating as, it has in speed skating," says Li. "We're really just starting. But many children love it. And as they become aware of international stars, this encourages them. The American Tiffany Chin skated in Beijing last year and aroused the people, especially the children." Chin sold out an 18,000-seat arena and created something of a boomlet in figure skating.
Li will travel to Calgary as the pairs' coach. She says there will be Chinese skaters in the singles events, but isn't sure about ice dancing. "No one knows until the sports commission decides," she says.
A small Alpine skiing team will represent the People's Republic at Calgary, but there will be no Chinese ski jumpers, bobsledders or lugers. This isn't surprising, because there are no bobsled or luge runs in China and only a single 45-meter ski jump, in Jalin Province. Qi Qi Ping, team leader for winter sports in Heilongjiang Province, says, "In those places where they have the facilities to ski, they can't buy the skis, or the skis available are poor. In the countryside many children must make their own skates and those have wooden runners. Only here in the cities are conditions such that the athlete can improve as he must."
Nor will China's contingent at the Games include a hockey team, although its national team diligently goes through twice-a-day sessions at the indoor rink in Harbin. "Ice hockey isn't very popular throughout China—only in Harbin," says team leader Jian Ge Xi. Indeed, there are only about 300 top-level hockey players among China's one billion people. Another thousand players compete on sports institute teams. There are two indoor hockey rinks and one outdoors in the 178,996 square miles of Heilongjiang Province. "Equipment is scarce, coaching is scarce," says Jian. "But the athletes are willing."
Against this backdrop of adversity China won the gold medal in ice hockey at the 1986 Winter Asian Games. But the team subsequently failed to qualify for the Olympics and instead has scheduled a playing tour of Australia and Holland for February and March. "There's no doubt we'll be better in years to come," says Jian. "The state has already said it will establish a juvenile team that will begin competing throughout Asia next year."
The march of the People's Republic to winter sports respectability will require more exposure to the world of international sports, and the Chinese know it. Hao and Liu spent September at a figure skating clinic in West Germany. Two of China's top downhill skiers are currently training in Alaska. Two years ago in Harbin the Brown University hockey team lost two out of three games against the People's Republic national team. At the same time the Jilin Province speed skating team was competing in Colorado.
There are half a dozen foreign coaches now working for the China Sports Commission. "The Chinese want to do much of the work, and all of the hard work, themselves." says Gunter Lange, a West German strength coach who has advised Wang and others on conditioning and nutrition. "But they're increasingly willing to ask for help. I'll tell you, they are going to improve. Once they learn a thing, they go at it 120 percent. When our athletes in the West succeed, they walk around like this"—Lange takes a few mincing steps with his nose in the air—"but the Chinese taste success and drive all the harder. Another coach was telling me he was working with athletes in the northeast under conditions—no heat, no water—that Western athletes would not tolerate. He swore that adversity itself made the Chinese bear down."
The hard work is officially encouraged. "The status quo in icy sports in China will change. I say confidently, because the authorities have asked that it change," says Jing Junzhi, vice-director of the ice center in Changchun, Manchuria's third largest city, with a population of more than 1.5 million. "At the third plenary session of the 11th Party Congress, in Beijing, leaders at several levels attached emphasis to improvement in the icy sports."