December 8, 2008

China's Strategy for the Next Four Years

Yesterday Sina posted 2 rather interesting articles on the current state of Chinese gymnastics. The articles start off with the question of why China is sending so many of its top female gymnasts to the World Cup Final at a time when other nations are giving their stars some well-earned (and in many cases badly needed) rest. They then go on to analyze China's strengths and weaknesses on both the men's and the women's side, and describe the country's strategies to remain the world's No. 1 force in the sport in the next quadrennium. The article below is an in-depth (read: pretty long) summary of those 2 articles, the originals of which can be found here and here.

Women's team

Have you ever wondered, like we've found ourselves doing, why China is sending almost its entire gold-medal-winning Olympic squad to the World Cup Final at a time when other countries can't be bothered to send even one gymnast to Spain? It's not because China is hungry for more medals. If it were, the country would send its top male gymnasts to Madrid as well as its top female gymnasts, which it's not doing. (Zhang Hongtao, Feng Zhe and Yan Mingyong will defend China's honor in the men's finals. None of those gymnasts was on the Olympic team.)

He Kexin (photo: Sohu)

The answer to the question appears to be that Cheng Fei, Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin, He Kexin, and Li Shanshan are flying to Madrid tomorrow to score "impression marks," which coach Lu Shanzhen hopes will help China net another Olympic team gold in 4 years' time.

"Having experienced the baptism that was the Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese women's team has finally become the world's strongest team in the true sense of the word," Lu Shanzhen told Sina with a sigh. "Although the team wasn't so obviously superior as the men's team, it definitely made history."

In Lu's opinion, the Beijing team gold turned the Chinese women's team from a second-rate team with the occasional title on individual events into a top team. (We think he's being somewhat harsh there. In our opinion, China has been a top team for years, but it seems Coach Lu's standards are higher than ours.) And now he feels the team must capitalize on that new reputation, lest the judges start thinking of them as - in our words - a bunch of likable fuckups again.

"Gymnastics is a sport in which people give marks," Lu explained. "Until now, the Chinese women's team wasn't very strong. At any rate, that was the judges' perception. The reason why we didn't give our Olympic team a rest period after the Olympics [the women's team took it easy for about a month after the Olympics, whereas the male gymnasts only just returned to the gym, some 3 months after the end of the Olympics], but rather let them take part in one international competition after the other, was to give the judges a continuing opportunity to see our Olympic team's level. We must convince the judges that the Chinese women's victory wasn't a fluke, but rather a natural outcome of our strength. We hope that endeavors like this will help us give the judges a fundamentally different impression of the Chinese women's team. We hope to make the Chinese women's team a brand in its own right from now on."

Jiang Yuyuan (photo: Sohu)

Lu realizes the Chinese women will have their work cut out for them. And for once, he says, they won't just focus on technique, which is what set them apart in Beijing. Now that they've mastered the technical aspects, Lu thinks the Chinese girls must become stronger in the "soft" aspects of the sport: performance and experience. In other words, they need a maturer style. And in order to get that, they need to compete more. So that's why they've been so busy touring Europe lately - to gain experience and to score what Lu calls "impression marks."

Basically, Lu hopes that China's top female gymnasts can get a foothold at international competitions, thus becoming "symbolic figures" (his words) and obtaining "as much approval from the judges as possible," all with an eye to the judges being more favorably disposed to them in future competitions.

"Our female gymnasts' competitive careers usually last much shorter than our male gymnasts'," said Lu. "Our current group is excellent. At the Beijing Olympics they made a very good impression on the judges, so I hope that, while they're up to it, they can take part in as many international competitions as possible. China will profit from this at the 2012 Olympics."

But ongoing exposure is only one of the methods the Chinese women's team will employ in its preparations for London 2012. Reportedly a large group of 12-and-13-year-old girls from all over the country will have a ten-day training camp in Beijing from this week onward. After next year's National Games, they'll have another big training camp, after which a few lucky juniors will be invited to the national team, to be prepared for the 2012 Olympics. Lu hopes the 2012 team will be a nice mix of veterans and youngsters. Ideally he'd like to see Cheng Fei on that team, but Cheng herself isn't ready to commit to that yet, although she has said she'll go on competing if the team really needs her.

Cheng Fei (photo: Reuters)

Men's team

Men's head coach Huang Yubin is expressing reservations about his team's short-term prospects. Apparently he feels that China (the most populous nation on earth, with arguably the most productive clubs in the world) lacks depth. At least, when it comes to all-arounders.

"As everybody knows, the International Gymnastics Federation will soon start using new rules. Once the new rules are in effect, all-around gymnasts will play an even more prominent role on the team than they do now. But as far as our team is concerned, once Yang Wei and Li Xiaopeng have retired, we'll have very few all-arounders," said Huang Yubin.   

Li Xiaopeng (photo: Sohu)

According to Huang, Yang Wei is relatively weak on high bar, but his routines on the 5 other events are world-class. Li Xiaopeng's only weakness is said to be pommel horse. In Huang Yubin's opinion, high-level all-arounders like Yang and Li were the main reason why China won the Olympic gold in Beijing. China will need such high-level all-arounders to win again in 4 years' time. But among the new generation of male Chinese gymnasts, nobody comes close to the 2 veterans in terms of all-around potential.  

Huang Yubin told Sina that the Chinese are already selecting the boys who will represent China at the next two Olympic Games. A while ago they hand-picked 10 young gymnasts in places as far away as Jiangsu and Guizhou. Men's coach Chen Xiong specifically went to visit them at their clubs to check how they were doing. According to Huang, Chen was very satisfied with these 13-to-17-year-old boys' level. But, he went on to say, male gymnasts need 5 to 8 years' intense preparation to get ready for big competitions, which means London 2012 will come too soon for most of these kids. Huang expects no more than 1 or 2 of them to make the 2012 Olympic team. So the task of guarding China's honor at the next Olympic Games will befall to current team members like Chen Yibing, Xiao Qin, Zou Kai, Feng Zhe, Teng Haibin, and so on. Unless, of course, Huang Yubin can get Yang Wei, Li Xiaopeng, and Huang Xu (all of whom are pushing 30) to stick around until 2012, which he's trying very hard to do.

Chen Yibing (photo: Sohu)

"I hope Li Xiaopeng, Yang Wei, and Huang Xu can go on until the 2012 London Olympic Games," is what Huang Yubin has been telling the media about his 3 most experienced disciples ever since the Beijing Olympics.

For the time being, Li, Yang, and Huang are hardly even training. Over 3 months after the Beijing Olympics, China's male gymnasts are still leading lives which don't leave them much time to train. Yang Wei and Li Xiaopeng haven't returned to the team yet, although Yang Wei has expressed an interest in doing so soon. Huang Xu, Chen Yibing, Xiao Qin, and Zou Kai have only just left their social and commercial activities behind them and returned to what is described as "restorative training," as opposed to "competitive training." It is hoped that they'll soon get back into the swing of things and stay around for another 4 years, as China obviously needs them to defend its Olympic title.

Without the veterans, Huang Yubin says, winning the 2012 Olympic team title will be quite a challenge for China.


  1. Thanks so much for translating such a long article. It was a really great read! Very informative.

  2. Thanks for taking the trouble to read it! Many people seem to skip our longer articles, but we thought this was worth paying some attention to. Glad you enjoyed it!