ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — A month ago, I met with a source close to the Chinese government in a tiny room in this mountain resort outside Beijing, which hosted the 2022 Olympic cross-country skiing events.
There, the source explained how a decision by international skiing officials to disqualify a Chinese cross-country skier from a race was like killing a baby.
China does not have, exactly, a long tradition of success in winter sports like cross-country skiing. But after several years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars invested in facilities, Scandinavian and Russian coaches, athlete development and gear, it was hoping for big results in Beijing, especially from star sprinter Wang Qiang.
Wang, in cross-country’s Olympic skate sprint last month, was poised for a top-10 finish, and maybe even a medal — definitely the only hardware that China’s cross-country ski team had a chance to win on home snow during the Games.
But in one of the event’s preliminary head-to-head knockout rounds, Wang tangled with a Norwegian skier, Pål Golberg, who crashed. The International Ski Federation jury overseeing the race relegated Wang to 30th place, ruling that he’d obstructed Golberg, even though China vehemently disagreed.
Hence the tamped-down outrage I was witnessing from my source, who wanted international followers of cross-country skiing to understand his country’s anger over the disqualification.
China had just poured huge amounts of money into hosting the Olympics and building up cross-country skiing; thousands of volunteers had put their lives on hold to pull off the Games during a pandemic. The ski federation, known as FIS, couldn’t give Wang the benefit of the doubt? In a country with hundreds of millions of potential new cross-country skiers and skiing fans, where the sport was still in its infancy?
“You don’t kill infants,” the source said.
This is a Chinese-friendly perspective on Wang’s disqualification, and many others disagree, saying that Wang committed a clear infraction and that skiing’s rules must be enforced without regard to politics or business.
But the Chinese perspective on the event is one that’s worth understanding. Because doing so can help answer one of the most interesting, and important, questions in cross-country skiing right now: Will China keep up its investment in the sport?.
“What I’m very curious about is: What next?” Vegard Ulvang, the retired Norwegian Olympic gold medalist who now chairs FIS’ cross-country committee, said in a phone interview. “Will they continue? Will they have a national team? Will they join the World Cup? To be honest, we don’t know. I have no information on what they will do.”
The question has enormous implications for the sport of cross-country skiing, given the size of China’s potential market for skis, wax and television broadcasts.
But I got conflicting answers when I asked the people who would know the answer.
The source close to the government said Wang’s disqualification soured China’s sports minister, Gou Zhongwen, on further investment in cross-country skiing, and he said the sport’s future in the nation looks deeply uncertain. Many of the team’s Scandinavian employees have contracts that end in May, without assurances they’ll be renewed.
“Everything is political, and the culture is completely different,” said Tor Arne Hetland, a Norwegian coach and former Olympic gold medalist who’s worked with Chinese athletes. “If the sports minister says, ‘We are not going to pursue winter sport or cross-country skiing or biathlon,’ then of course, there will not be any money for it. And the project will be completely dead.”
But in an interview in Zhangjiakou during the Games, Zhang Bei, the Communist Party official who leads China’s cross-country ski team, struck a positive note.
She said her country’s commitment to training athletes will continue into next year, and plans have already been announced that the team will keep sending athletes to train in Finland through the 2026 Games. Wang also proved his potential with a podium performance on the top-level World Cup circuit earlier this month in Drammen, Norway.
But Zhang would not reveal details about China’s cross-country budget. And she also suggested, logically, that the country would be scaling back its investment in skiing infrastructure from its big Olympics build-up.
“There is a saying in China: Everything is difficult to start,” Zhang said in the interview, conducted through a translator. “After you have the bases for the infrastructure, then of course, there is an adjustment.”
Ulvang has closely watched China’s cross-country program and, as the country’s athletes trained in Scandinavia before the Olympics, he hosted two of the nation’s top female prospects, Bayani Jialin and Dinigeer Yilamujiang, for a week at his home.
Ulvang described China’s efforts to train ski champions as “all out.” But he’s still waiting to see if the country’s commitment will last, because, he said, developing a durable skiing culture takes time.
“We need to see if this was motivated by the medals on the home field,” Ulvang said, “or if this was part of a long term strategy.”
“Starting from zero”
China’s huge pre-Games spending on cross-country skiing was fueled by Zhongwen’s belief that the discipline was one of the best measures of a nation’s overall prowess in winter sports, said the source close to the government.
The country spared no expense. Among its investments was a $150 million, 1.3-kilometer indoor ski tunnel that athletes can use to train year-round; one Chinese team employee showed me a video of another contraption that resembled an enormous plate with snow on top, which spun in circles while athletes stayed in the same place by skiing in the opposite direction.
China hired dozens of Scandinavian coaches and experts at yearly salaries that reached $120,000. The government recruited hundreds of Chinese athletes from other sports into cross-country skiing, and sent them to training centers in Norway and Finland. (Chinese officials considered Alaska as an option, where athletes could fly in helicopters to train at Alaska Pacific University’s facility on Eagle Glacier, but Zhang said securing visas proved too difficult.)
The team spent millions more on wax and equipment. In Zhangjiakou, the Chinese team had access to the Games’ only on-site ski waxing bus, which has sliding doors and facial recognition technology.
“They have started from zero,” said Hetland. The skiing infrastructure that the country has built up, he added, “is more than what Norway has done in the last few years.”
In the years before the Olympics, the team’s athletes recorded impressive results, even though some had only been skiing a few years — unlike many European athletes who have raced for the majority of their lives.
Yilamujiang and Bayani both cracked the top 30 on the World Cup circuit, and notched top-15 results at the world championships for juniors and athletes under 23 years old. Wang, China’s star male skier, performed at a similar level.
But at the Olympics, other than Wang, none of China’s cross-country skiers cracked the top 30. Some people close to the team described the event as a disappointment, given the Chinese athletes’ proven potential.
Former employees of the Chinese team said two dynamics help explain the results.
One was a tendency by Chinese team leaders to disrupt the Scandinavian coaches’ training programs, by pushing athletes through brutally difficult workouts that the Chinese staff thought were needed.
The other was the decision by team leaders to pull China’s athletes out of the World Cup circuit during the COVID-19 pandemic — a move that kept the skiers safe but deprived them of experience against international-caliber competition on trails outside their home country. (Chinese officials did hire semi-elite Russian athletes to travel to China to give the country’s athletes more racing experience.)
“They need to spend even more time in Scandinavia and learn from everybody in the environment that is around a skier,” said Hetland, the Norwegian coach. “And that has been maybe the biggest challenge for the team, when due to COVID they have stayed at home in China in the last two years.”
Hetland said it’s important to remember that China has its own distinct culture from those of the European nations that have historically dominated cross-country skiing. Adapting that culture takes time, he and others said.
“I visited China two years ago, and I was clear to the officials there that developing or training up a good skier, fighting for medals, is not a quick fix,” said Ulvang, the Norwegian FIS official. Still, he added: “It’s really special to see such fast development into some of the best racers in the world.”
Zhang, the Chinese leader, had no complaints about her team’s Olympic results.
“I am very much satisfied with the performance of our athletes,” she said. “I also feel very satisfied that each of our athletes is enjoying the competition, and that they are happy.”
“They cut him”
Zhang spoke with me in a busy athletes’ lounge in the bowels of Zhangjiakou’s biathlon building.
With the help of some of her European coaches, I’d picked her out of her white-jacketed, fur-hatted entourage at the cross-country skiing venue a few days before. She reacted with surprising openness, and agreed to an interview after I supplied her with enough details to get approval from her superiors.
Zhang embodies China’s recent foray into winter sports: She came to her job four years ago, with a background as an elite rower, and only recently took up cross-country skiing herself. She told me she was too shy to try it in front of her athletes because she was worried they’d laugh at her.
In our hour-long discussion, Zhang came across more like a politician or ambassador than a coach or executive, striking a vague but upbeat tone that glossed over some of the challenges I’d heard about from former employees.
“We have a very good start,” she said in response to a question about her program’s future. “Most importantly, we have many young people that are interested in cross-country skiing. And we have to help them to fulfill their dream.”
The only time Zhang acknowledged even a hint of tension or conflict was on the subject of the disqualification of Wang, China’s star athlete. She said she and other team members were upset about the decision at the Olympics, which Zhang called “wrong.”
Technically, FIS’ race jury ruled that Wang would be “ranked as last” in the freestyle for breaking international competition rules against obstructing other skiers.
Slow motion replay of the event shows Wang in his neck-and-neck sprint heat edging to his right in a way that appeared to impede Golberg, the Norwegian, who was skiing alongside Wang and ultimately crashed. (The video cannot be posted here due to Olympic broadcasting rules, but FasterSkier can provide a copy by email upon request.)
The video isn’t exactly conclusive, and the jury’s decision has its critics — including, apparently, Gou, China’s sports minister.
Four separate sources told me that Gou learned of the disqualification during a dinner with Johan Eliasch, the FIS president, where Gou subsequently “lost his appetite” and raised his concerns with Eliasch directly. (A FIS spokesperson said in an email that the federation “does not comment on speculation about discussions between individuals during private dinners.”)
China ultimately appealed the jury’s decision, but the appeal was rejected, said Ulvang. The source close to the government said China also asked FIS to extend some type of goodwill gesture after the disqualification, but that request wasn’t granted either.
Representatives from cross-country ski equipment manufacturers were frustrated, too. Currently, the industry sells only small amounts of gear and skis in China, and only to elite athletes there — not to “normal people,” said Hans Hubinger, an official from ski giant Fischer who was working at the cross-country venue in Zhangjiakou.
“It’s not easy for us to see if there’s a future for the Chinese market or not,” Hubinger said in an interview.
Wang was the industry’s only hope for a Chinese cross-country skiing medal, which could have stimulated new interest, and gear sales, in the nation’s massive market. That market could also bring much-needed television viewers to cross-country skiing’s broadcasts — a major source of revenue for the sport.
Hubinger said he thought Wang’s disqualification was a close call where the jury could have given him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think, ‘Oh, this is the chance now, to turn some guys into heroes’…and they cut him,” he said. “If the rules are clear, then you have to cut him. But this rule is not clear.”
Pierre Mignerey, FIS’ cross-country skiing race director and a member of the jury that disqualified Wang, said he sees the situation completely differently.
In an interview in Zhangjiakou, Mignerey said it would be completely inappropriate for a race jury to weigh political factors, like the size of China’s ski market or its investment in the Games, in their decisions.
“Sports mean that we have some rules. And that would be, in my opinion, quite shocking if the rules would not apply to everyone in the same way, regardless of if it’s the host nation,” said Mignerey, a retired French racer. “What would people say if the jury had decided something else?”
Others placed responsibility for the disqualification on Chinese team leaders, arguing that their decision to skip international races during the pandemic left athletes like Wang without enough experience in the kind of tight-quarters competition that happened in the Olympic sprint.
In the weeks after the Games, Wang delivered results that only underscored the opportunity he missed when he was disqualified — regardless of who bears the ultimate responsibility for that decision.
In his first World Cup race after the Games, in Finland, Wang, 28, finished a career-best sixth place. The following week, in Norway, he landed on the podium for the first time.
That result delivered a shot of hope to those who want to see the Chinese program continue.
On social media afterward, Wang made clear his intentions to continue in the sport, even if his country’s commitment to its skiing program remains something of a mystery.
“Today is a milestone. This is the first time a Chinese athlete stands on the podium of the World Cup series. We have won the respect of the world,” Wang said on a platform called Weibo. He added: “I will continue to pursue my dream with a humble attitude.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.