Salmon for Skiing
Over the last four years China has undertaken perhaps the grandest experiment in cross country skiing history: can hundreds of athletes cherry picked from other sports and given seemingly unlimited resources be turned into Olympic medalists in nordic events?
Chinese athletes have never medaled in any of the nordic disciplines, and their teams head into the Olympics as the darkest of dark horses. Success, in the form of medals, is key to their aims of climbing up the medal table and becoming the protagonists of their own winter Games.
The Chinese nordic programs have aimed to rapidly become competitive with the best in the world. The urgency of the task was made clear at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics where China finished fourteenth in the medal count, capturing a single gold medal, and just nine in total.
Despite this history, not everyone is dismissive of their chances.
“I said four years ago that I predict these guys will medal in Beijing,” said US biathlete Clare Egan in a call, “because I know that medals are important to China and that they basically will put any resources possible into making things happen like that. So nothing would surprise me.”
Even so, Egan conceded that, “It’s going to be hard for them, because they aren’t fast enough.”
The project of building a culture of skiing in China began in 2015 when Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Games. The government spurred into action: it would make 120 million of its citizens into recreational skiers by building 800 new ski areas, among them the world’s largest indoor center in Harbin that cost $4.5 billion.
Cross country skiing also benefited from the investment rush, with an 1.3 k indoor ski tunnel built in Beishan, a joint Finnish-China project that cost $148 million. Another cross country ski tunnel is planned to be placed inside an unused coal mine shaft on the outskirts of Beijing. Liu Bo, a former ski coach, told Reuters in 2018 that he was investing $318 million in the project.
Bo explained in the interview that the goal for Chinese skiing, aimed at the Olympics, was clear: “China spends big money setting up the stage, and the performers are all foreigners,” said Bo. “President Xi will not allow this to happen. We have to be the leading actor in 2022.”
While the ski resort boom was mainly aimed at creating a ski culture in China, taking on a starring role in Beijing meant that expertise would be needed from abroad. For guidance, officials looked to the top of the medal table: Norway.
Initially, it was impossible for China to work with Norway. When the Olympics were awarded to Beijing in 2015 the two countries were still embroiled in a diplomatic crisis that had severed official contact between the nations and frozen trade negotiations. The rupture occurred in 2010 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to Li Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist who was then imprisoned in China. At the Nobel ceremony, Xiaobo was evocatively symbolized by an empty chair on the stage.
In response, China all but severed diplomatic ties with Norway, despite the government’s lack of control over the Nobel committee. Two months later China halted the importation of fresh Norwegian salmon – a significant industry – over what was generally regarded as a politically motivated concern over a fish-borne virus.
The ban, as well as other restrictions, are believed to have cost Norway between $780 million to $1.3 billion between 2010 and 2017. At the time of the contentious Nobel ceremony, Norway had enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the Chinese salmon market, and the country’s fisheries had to watch as Chinese demand for salmon increased by thirty percent, while their share plummeted by two thirds.
Years of cautious steps by the Norwegian government followed, including its first ever refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama during his 2014 visit to Norway. Norway’s socialist left party leader Audun Lysbakken criticized this move in The Guardian, saying, “We can’t be dictated to by China in the sense of exchanging human rights for salmon.”
That fall, Oslo – the favorite for the 2022 Games – dropped out, paving the way for Beijing to win the bid the following summer. With the Games in hand, the calculus changed, and the rift with Norway became an awkward obstacle to their objectives.
A subtle indication of rapprochement came in an unusual way: Gerhard Heiberg, a Norwegian businessman headed the IOC’s Marketing Commission, and was offered a meeting on a 2016 trip to Beijing with the Chinese Minister of Sport, Gou Zhongwen.
The minister marveled at Norway’s success in skiing, Heiberg recounted to NRK, “He said that those at the top in China had agreed that they would like an agreement with Norway on a sports collaboration. And from the Chinese side, there was a desire to use Norwegian leaders, coaches, universities and so on who worked with winter sports.”
Heiberg recognized the moment. “I saw that here we have a fantastic opportunity to approach China.” Not wanting to waste the favorable winds, Heiberg left the meeting and “went straight to [Ambassador] Svein Sæther. And he lit positively on all the plugs.”
With some quiet maneuvering, relations thawed, and Norway and China signed a bilateral agreement to resume diplomatic relations in December 2016. The agreement conceded that Norway would not challenge China on its “core interests and major concerns” — a diplomatic term for avoiding involvement in sensitive issues, including human rights.
That winter the Norwegian Ski Association was asked to help look for coaches to work in China and offered salaries of 1.1 million kroner (equivalent to $120,000) per year. China also wanted to send its athletes to Norway, but to do so, it would need to put to rest their feud.
In April 2017, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited Beijing, officially ending the freeze. Solberg reestablished the relationship in part by signing an agreement with China to support their sporting endeavors, particularly in nordic sports, through to the Beijing Olympics. The agreement would provide China with Norwegian ski coaches, training opportunities, as well as sporting development and snow making expertise. In return, Norway received the opportunity to optimize “Norwegian preparations for the Olympics.”
This deft piece of ski diplomacy helped to seal a seafood trade agreement with China the following month that planned to see Norway export $1.4 billion worth of salmon alone to China by 2025. The long awaited reentry to the Chinese market had arrived, and if there were any lingering questions about human rights, Per Sandberg, Norway’s Minister of Fisheries wasn’t having it. He told Aftenposten that “Norway addresses human rights in very many contexts… this time it’s fish.”
Ski diplomacy started with Stolberg’s agreement with China, and was reaffirmed the following year when King Harald visited China, signifying the complete normalization of relations while taking in a rollerskiing race at Beijing’s Olympic Park.
Despite the apparent connection between the sporting pact and the trade deals, the Norwegian Prime Minister denied the two items were related. In any case, the agreement caught the Norwegian Sports Confederation by surprise. Oddvar Jenssen, the former VP of the organization, said in an interview with Aftenposten that the decision “…came terribly fast, and a lot was in place before we knew anything. When the agreement came up, we had no choice.”
Misgivings aside, for Norwegian ski coaches, wax techs, and sport scientists, the Chinese agreement would turn into a major employment opportunity, with around 40 coaches and techs working for Chinese training groups, and around 60 more occasionally hired for short stints. No longer were the job opportunities going to be contingent on moving to China, the athletes would now be coming to Norway.
Arrival in Norway
The sporting agreement between Norway and China took on new force after China’s dismal performance in the 2018 Olympics. Afterward, the Chinese Ministry of Sport went looking for coaching help abroad. Many nations vied for contracts, but Norway was the first stop for Gou Zhongwen.
In July, ten of China’s core World Cup athletes arrived in Trondheim, Norway to begin training for the World Cup with former Montana State University skier Bernhard Rønning.
It was the prelude to an influx of more than 200 young Chinese athletes to Norway in the late summer and fall of 2018.
In addition to the Trondheim group, another was set up in Meråker, under the leadership of former Canadian National Team Coach Tor-Arne Hetland. In Lillehammer a group was led by Kristen Størmer Steira (wife of FasterSkier podcaster Devon Kershaw) and finally one in Trysil led by the mother/daughter combo of Anita Moen and Karoline Moen Guidon.
Anita Moen’s experience illustrates the slapdash nature of the project. In mid July of 2018 she was on vacationing on a beach when her phone rang. It was an offer to coach Chinese skiers until the 2022 Games.
“It was only two weeks until they were to arrive,” Moen told NRK “… I did not quite know who was coming, but I was told they had never skied before, never seen snow.”
While China mobilized to send loads of athletes to Norway, their plans didn’t stop there. After Minister Zhongwen left Norway, he flew with his entourage directly to Finland. Waiting for him at the airport was Veiko Hallonen, the CEO of the Vuokatti Sports College.
Vuokatti offered excellent training opportunities: a long winter, a ski tunnel, knowledgeable coaches, and sophisticated technology that impressed the officials. Perhaps Zhongwen was also mindful of the warmer diplomatic climes in Finland. Ni Huizong, the Director of the Winter Sports Administrative Center told Yle, “Relations between Finland and China have a long and warm history.”
Chinese athletes had been training in Vuokatti since 2016, but the agreement established a permanent Chinese presence at the Vuokatti center and increased the total number of athletes that would stay in Finland.
The head cross country coach in Vuokatti at that time was Glenn Lindholm, who met with the Chinese delegation and was asked directly whether four years were enough to turn novices into Olympic champions. Lindholm’s response was neither yes nor no.
Lindholm must have understood the unlikely prospect of delivering medals by the next Olympics. Still, the project may have seemed crazy enough to work. Vuokatti was about to get more than 130 hand picked Chinese athletes, an almost unlimited pot of money to work with, and just under four years to produce a medalist.
It was audacious, and too bold to resist. As Lindholm and others would learn, realism, a pandemic, and decisions made in the halls of power of Beijing would frustrate their plans.
To be continued in Part 2.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.