The Evening Standard

The story of the Vancouver Olympics is not so much that, after a dismal start, Canada got it right. The real lessons are provided by the emergence of China as a winter games nation.

They show that China has fully mastered the art of using the modern Olympics to play war games, to send messages which resonate far beyond the fields of play.

Nothing illustrated this better than the pairs figure skating held at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum. This event has been the preserve of the Russians since 1960, the year before the Berlin Wall was built.

But in Vancouver the Chinese beat the Russians and every other nation, becoming the first non-Europeans to take gold. As the winning pair of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao skated divinely to Western music, everyone was enthralled by their story. Here were childhood sweethearts, now happily married, emerging from retirement. Their victory came appropriately on Valentine’s Day and coincided with the start of the Chinese New Year.

Nothing better emphasised how China could co-exist with the West, and indeed use the West. As their coach Luan Bo put it, when he started skating China so restricted Western images that he had to learn from still photographs of European and North American skaters. In Vancouver, China had eight foreign coaches, including a Canadian for their curling team.

It is clear that this is what the Chinese mean by opening up — learning from the West to master Western sports. By the end, the Chinese dominated not only figure skating but short track speed skating and won a bronze in curling, a sport they took up only in 2003. Having won only four golds in the previous 31 years, they won five in Vancouver.

What’s more, their rivals are looking at their system. Jeff Wintersteen, the US aerials coach, has studied the Chinese academy training programme. The Russians have even recruited a Chinese female gymnast.

China’s triumph has been devastating for the Russians. At the heyday of Soviet power the Russians used sport as a tool of foreign policy, setting up Soviet-style sports academies in places such as India. But the collapse of communism, which also unmasked the doping which formed the bedrock of Soviet triumphs, has meant success cannot be replicated.

The Chinese, too, have had their drugs problems, in particular in athletics and in swimming, but they have tried hard to put their house in order. With winter sports confined to the far north-east, in Heliongjiang and Jilin, China targets only certain winter sports: short track, men and women’s aerials, snowboarding, figure skating and women’s curling.

The Russians left Vancouver aware that their winter sports world has to be restructured for the 2014 Sochi Games, where billions are being invested.

China left Vancouver happy that the pre-Beijing Games talk of the Olympics opening up the regime is history. If anything, the two years since Beijing — often described as China’s coming-out party — has proved that the debutant has grown into an even more authoritarian lady. The regime has passed heavy sentences on dissidents.

Before Vancouver, the IOC voted to give the youth Olympics to Nanjing and there was no talk of human rights or the Dalai Lama. This is just the image China wants to project. Sporting triumph marked by the unfurling of Chinese flags as seen in Vancouver, not talk of changing the nature of the regime.


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