A Chinese athlete took cross-country skiing by storm last year. But as World Championships kick off, he’s stuck at home.

Nathaniel HerzFebruary 25, 2023
Wang Qiang became the first Chinese athlete to podium in a World Cup last year, finishing 2nd in a classic sprint in Norway. This year, political turmoil has stranded him at home and kept him out of the World Ski Championships in Slovenia. (Photo: NordicFocus)

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PLANICA, SLOVENIA – Wang Qiang was cross-country skiing’s Next Big Thing.

Wang, 29, was the product of a colossal investment from his home country to identify and train potential medal winners in the lead-up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Communist Party leaders saw cross-country skiing as a prestige sport and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their national team, building an indoor ski tunnel and recruiting top coaches from Europe.

The effort didn’t produce medals at the Olympics. But a big payoff came just weeks later, when Wang cracked his first podium on the World Cup circuit, a huge accomplishment that came against some of the same competitors he faced in Beijing.

In a sport typically dominated by Europeans, Wang’s podium was a breakthrough — an announcement of a rising power in cross-country skiing.

Wang Qiang was fifth in the skate sprint qualifier at the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Team leaders said the program would continue after the Games, and over the summer, Wang trained in Norway, with European support staff and a Chinese interpreter and physical therapist. In September, he told a Norwegian television station that he would compete at the 2023 World Championships in Slovenia.

But when Wang’s best event, the sprint, was held at those championships Thursday, he was missing — apparently back home, in China, where he’d been forced to watch the entire World Cup season from the sidelines. On social media, he published a screenshot of a Norwegian news story about his absence, the latest in a string of posts expressing regrets about his departure from Europe.

The tale of Wang’s unexplained disappearance has become something of a tragedy and a mystery among his friends and competitors on cross-country skiing’s World Cup circuit, who say he’s one of the few athletes with the raw talent to challenge Norway’s superstar sprinter, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo.

“They’ve got this one guy that could be the world’s best skier, and he just doesn’t get to race. I don’t quite understand it,” said Andrew Musgrave, a British cross-country skier who lives and trains in Norway. “It just seems bizarre.”

Wang’s experience is emblematic of what’s happened in Chinese snow sports since the end of the Beijing Olympics: turmoil, without a clear explanation.

The country’s national cross-country ski team has been shut down, and it hasn’t fielded athletes in top-level competitions this year. Its nordic combined team is also missing from the World Championships in Slovenia.

China’s Olympic alpine skiers haven’t competed internationally since Beijing. And the country’s biathlon squad, after its own substantial investment in the lead-up to the Games, has also largely disappeared, skipping World Cup competitions and sending a skeleton crew to recent World Championships races in Germany.

In a strange twist, though, China’s best ski jumpers have been consistently present on the World Cup circuit since January, and are competing at World Championships in Slovenia this week.

In a brief interview outside the team’s wax cabin Friday evening, the Finnish coach who leads China’s jumping squad, Jani Klinga, said the group has a step-by-step, four-year plan building toward the 2026 Olympics.

A nordic combined team is forming some time later, Klinga added, but he said he has no information about the fate of China’s cross-country skiers.

“I don’t know about the cross-country athletes, the situation over there,” Klinga said. “But on our side, everything is moving forward.”

International snow sports leaders also appear to be largely in the dark about China’s plans.

In biathlon, contracts with the foreigners hired to coach the national team were not renewed, and a plan to buy 3,000 laser training rifles each year also has not been carried out, said Max Cobb, the International Biathlon Union’s secretary general.

“They were really making progress as a nation and had some really decent results from their athletes,” Cobb said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s really hard to know what the plan and leadership structure is, and who’s ultimately responsible. We certainly hope that they’ll come back — there’s just, at the moment, not a lot of activity, and it feels like the momentum’s been lost.”

International Ski Federation President Johan Eliasch said his organization is in close contact with the Chinese Ski Association and that “everything we hear is aligned with their stated commitment to proliferate winter sports in China.”

FIS President Johan Eliasch speaks with reporters Wednesday before the start of the World Ski Championships in Planica. (Nathaniel Herz/FasterSkier)

But in remarks to reporters in Planica this week, Eliasch said he couldn’t comment on the Chinese cross-country ski team’s absence from World Championships other than citing the nation’s restrictive coronavirus protocols — which were lifted in December.

The leader of China’s defunct cross-country ski team, Zhang Bei, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

But in phone interviews, two sources close to China’s cross-country program described Wang’s absence as a symptom of a larger realignment in the nation’s sports regime after the 2022 Olympics.

In the lead-up to the Beijing Games, they said, China’s sports minister, Gou Zhongwen, was not actually a sports expert: He was a well-connected Communist Party insider, who used those connections to secure ample budgets for his programs.

The nation’s cross-country ski team was among Gou’s most favored projects, the sources said, because of European countries’ longstanding dominance in the sport: If China could win a medal, it would be a major triumph over the West.

But the massive investment in cross-country skiing didn’t produce any hardware: Wang, the country’s top prospect, was disqualified from the Olympic sprint race when he crashed into a Norwegian competitor.

Once the Games were over, Gou retired. His replacement, Gao Zhidan, is a sports specialist who lacks the same level of political support, and the same interest in cross-country skiing, the sources said.

“After the Olympics, the cards have been reshuffled. And cross-country lost its aces,” said one of the sources, who worked in Chinese sports in the lead-up to the Games.

Around the same time as the change in ministers, Norwegian media reported, Wang was returned home from Europe to China. The national cross-country ski team was also disbanded, the sources said, and its athletes were sent back to their regional teams.

Those regional teams, the sources said, prioritize Chinese national championships over international racing because there’s substantial prize money at stake.

An internal audit of the cross-country program is also underway, according to the other source, a Chinese resident.

There’s a good chance the national ski team will be rebuilt in time for next winter, said the Chinese source, who requested anonymity because of “internal struggles” in their home country. But even insiders don’t really know what will happen, the source added.

“Even if you’re in the Communist Party, you don’t know,” the source said. “You need to be connected with the right people. Otherwise, forget about it.”

During his involuntary break from international-caliber competition, Wang has continued training and stayed relatively optimistic, avoiding direct criticism that could put him in conflict with the political leaders who control his future.

“I am aware that I am missing out on a fantastic season. But I have to accept the situation,” he told a Swedish newspaper recently. “I want to concentrate on training this summer and be in the World Cup next season. I think I’ll make it.”

Wang Qiang races in a World Cup classic sprint last year in Falun, Sweden. (Photo: NordicFocus)

But his friends and fellow competitors said they’re worried about the effects of isolation on Wang and his Chinese teammates, who haven’t done much of the kind of tight, close-quarters racing that happens on the World Cup. There’s also Wang’s advancing age: He turns 30 this year.

“It’s difficult when they are not here, because they need the experience in every World Cup race,” said Finnish skier Remi Lindholm, who trained with some of the Chinese athletes for several months in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Like Musgrave, Lindholm said Wang “absolutely” has the potential to beat Klaebo, the Norwegian superstar. Which makes it sad, Lindholm added, that Wang is stuck in his home country.

“He’s a good guy,” Lindholm said. “And he knows that he has to do the job every day to get to the World Cup.”

Nathaniel Herz

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.

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