For thousands of athletes and coaches, touchdown in Beijing marks the culmination of years of hard work. But for a select few, flying into Beijing has also been a homecoming. Chinese coaches are just the latest "Made in China" export, and this month, many are returning so their international charges can compete against China's best athletes. Mexico and Thailand's weightlifting squads are helmed by Chinese, and Belgium's table-tennis team is also Chinese-run. Both the American and Australian diving teams are strengthened by Chinese coaching expertise. And Shawn Johnson and Bernard Lagat, top American medal prospects in women's gymnastics and men's middle-distance track respectively, depend on the ministrations of their personal Chinese coaches.
Journeymen coaches have long been part of the sporting narrative, with European soccer managers flitting between rival nations and Eastern Europeans spanning the world to run gymnastics camps. But China has only recently started offering coaches for export. For decades, the People's Republic's state-run sports system was closed, with little chance of either athlete or coach migrating abroad. (Rare defections, like that of a female tennis player in the early 1980s to the U.S., only strengthened Chinese resolve not to let others out the door.) Nor, frankly, would most countries at that time have wanted a Chinese coach, who was still schooled in outdated methods and inordinately focused on mind-numbing repetitive training.
But as China transformed over the last two decades from an Olympic afterthought to athletic powerhouse and travel restrictions on its citizens eased, Chinese coaches suddenly have found themselves in hot demand. With the Games in Beijing, their home-turf knowledge is an advantage. Their expertise is particularly valued in sports in which China has traditionally dominated at the Olympics, such as diving, weightlifting, table tennis, gymnastics, and volleyball.
Take Lang Ping, who has helmed the U.S. women's volleyball team since 2005. Lang also happens to be one of China's best-ever volleyball players, a willowy athlete nicknamed the "Iron Hammer" for having led China to a legendary gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Far from shunning Lang for lending her talents to the American team, crowds of Chinese cheered her arrival in Beijing this week before the games. Even the visiting Americans have been impressed with Lang's enduring popularity. "I think that's such a rare thing, to see Chinese fans support our country because of Lang Ping," said Nicole Davis, a member of the U.S. volleyball team, at an August 5 press conference in Beijing. Lang was more modest. "I'm just glad to be home," she said.
Some Chinese coaches were lured abroad by lucrative contracts that offered far higher salaries than what they might make as a cog in their homeland's state sports system. Others, though, were motivated by different concerns. James Li, who coaches American runner Lagat, decided to stay abroad in the U.S. in 1989 largely because of the Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. He has trained Lagat for the past 12 years and last year was named coach of the year by the American track and field authority.
Foreign coaches haven't fared as well in China. The well-regarded German coach of China's canoeing and kayaking team was sacked less than two months before the Olympics were to begin. In July, the Serbian manager of China's Olympic men's soccer squad was also axed. And last spring, the French coach of the women's national soccer team was let go in a particularly frosty manner — her dismissal came by email. All three foreigners were replaced by local counterparts. The Chinese sports system, it turns out, prefers "Made in China."
6 months ago