Memories of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – and what happened next

Ten years ago tonight, I had the privilege of witnessing one of the most dominant Olympic performances of our time, as Usain Bolt ran 9.69 in the men’s 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But I nearly missed the race entirely – and much has changed in China’s sports scene over the ensuing decade.

One of the benefits of covering the Olympic Games as an accredited TV journalist is having a pass that gets you access into pretty much every venue. You can’t wander onto the track at will or take a seat poolside, but you can generally find some space in the media section, which typically offers a pretty good view. There’s so much sport to cover at a Games that major TV stations – in Beijing, I was working for Canada’s CBC – typically work around the clock, especially when you are beaming the signal back to the other side of the world, so staff are split into parallel 12-hour shifts so that no detail gets missed. But when your shift is over, you’re free to catch some of the sporting action – all in the name of Olympic research, of course.

However, the men’s 100m final is one of the few events – like the Opening and Closing Ceremonies or a Michael Phelps final – that are so popular that even the media need tickets. And on the night of August 16 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, about an hour before Usain Bolt was set to race, I hadn’t managed to get one.

I was back at home and called my friend to ask where he planned to watch the race on TV.

“I’m at the Bird’s Nest. We’ve got tickets!”

Introducing: Second Gear

As the first of a new series of podcasts (and, soon, videocasts/TV shows) that I’ll be hosting with Sean Henshelwood, Second Gear aims to be an unvarnished look at the Asian motorsport scene. For all the undoubted opportunities of the Asian market, it sometimes feels like the sport doesn’t get out of second gear – hence the name – so in addition to all the latest news and analysis, we’ll also be talking about what needs to be done to take the sport to the next level.

Issues discussed on this episode include:

Chinese Formula 1 Grand Prix:

Reaction to the race

Ricciardo’s formative years racing in Asia

Why you should take headlines from China with a sack of salt

The headlines from China that make their way into the sports sections of western media very often contain errors, falsehoods and sometimes just downright lies. Two rules of thumb: if it sounds too good to be true, it is; and be very, very careful with numbers. Here’s a selection of recent stories that have stretched the truth in various ways… 

It pays to be skeptical in China — and that’s as true in sports as it is in economics. The so-called “Li Keqiang index,” a term originally coined by The Economist after it was revealed the Chinese premier prefers to gauge the economy using his own indicators instead of trusting official data, is well known. However, the figures bouncing around China’s sports sector are just as likely to raise eyebrows.

Just this week, a report from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl — arguably the most connected man in US soccer — said that new LA Galaxy signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who dominated sports headlines last weekend after scoring a stunning goal in his MLS debut, had turned down nearly $100 million from a Chinese club to ply his trade in Los Angeles for the meager sum of $1.5 million per year.

But if it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

The number comes from former Galaxy player — and now the club’s technical director — Jovan Kirovski, who most likely got his information from Ibrahimovic’s agent, Mino Raiola.

Hockey China Coach Digit Murphy on Team’s World Championship Prospects

Last summer, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced that not one but two Chinese teams would join its ranks, based out of Shenzhen, but playing the majority of its games in North America, while also hosting games in China. The investment from the Kunlun Group, which also runs a men’s team in Russia’s KHL as well as other teams, meant that CWHL players were paid for the first time in their history. 

Coached by legendary women’s hockey coach Digit Murphy, Kunlun Red Star lost in overtime in the season-ending Clarkson Cup final, while the Vanke Rays also performed well in their debut season, narrowly missing out on the playoffs. Each team iced six foreign imports – known as player ambassadors – throughout the season with the rest of the roster spots filled by Chinese players. Those two sets of Chinese skaters have now joined forces to represent their country at the World Championship (Division 1, Group B) in Asiago, Italy, in what marks the first real test of China’s ice hockey revolution in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2022. Ahead of the team’s first game, China Sports Insider spoke to Coach Murphy to get her thoughts.

China Sports Insider: You’ve been coaching in China for about a year now, both with Kunlun Red Star in the CWHL, as well as overseeing the national team squad. How has the progress of the Chinese players been?

Digit Murphy: It’s been amazing. Every day our players get better. Our model has been to use player ambassadors. For many of the players it’s been the first time that they’ve played this style of hockey, and when you play this style of hockey, you make a lot of mistakes, because you take a lot of chances. What we’re going to try and do is minimize those mistakes and find opportunities to score more goals. If you look at China’s performance historically, they haven’t scored a lot of goals, so that was one of the core foundations that we wanted to work on with these players. We’ve used a lot of the Canadian/American development model, so let’s see if it works!

CSI: The Chinese players have been learning all season from their six international teammates, but are now on their own for the first time. What will be their biggest challenge in making that adjustment?

Gov’t meddling in Chinese soccer, Pt 28: tattoo ban

You may have heard by now about China’s ban on tattoos, first announced in January when “hip-hop elements” were deemed no longer suitable for TV, and now scrubbed from soccer, too (as detailed below). But though this forms part of a wider campaign, Chinese football has seen the government get involved all too often. 

Just this week, Zhao Yong, deputy director of China’s General Administration of Sport, was spouting off about the fact he felt China’s national team couldn’t possibly play together on the *same* team because they played *against* each other every week in the Chinese Super League. Zhao was educated at Hunan Water Works and Hydroelectric College and has precisely zero experience in sports administration, but that’s the kind of person running Chinese football these days. Bear that in mind as you read this week’s column… 

If only Chinese footballers could shoot the ball in the net as consistently as Chinese football shoots itself in the foot.

Shortly after last week’s column about China’s 6-0 hammering by Wales in the Gree China Cup went to print, soccer fans started to notice something in photographs of the match that hadn’t been immediately obvious on TV.

Why were certain Chinese players wearing skin-colored bandages on their arms? Was this some kind of newfangled wearable tech? Was a highly contagious skin rash spreading through the locker room?

Interview: Zach Yuen, the face of Chinese ice hockey

As part of a recent panel event at the Bookworm Festival in Beijing, I interviewed Zach Yuen, the first player of Chinese descent to be drafted by an NHL team (Winnipeg Jets, 2011) and current defenceman with the China-based Kunlun Red Star in the KHL. Though born and raised in Vancouver, Yuen could now qualify to play for China under IIHF rules and is one of a leading group of ethnically-Chinese foreigners who could represent China at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. 

[This was recorded at a live event, so apologies for the audio quality.]

Yuen has six goals and nine assists in 86 KHL games with Kunlun Red Star over two seasons.

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The future direction of China’s sports policy

Politics trumps everything in China, so when all the top leaders gather in Beijing for their annual meetings, it’s worth paying attention. Sports is not – it must be stressed – a top priority at the “Two Sessions” or Lianghui, but it does get a mention every now and then. Below are the relevant moments from the week’s major speeches, plus some attempts to read the tea leaves. 

The major headline coming out of China over the past few days has been the widely-expected confirmation that President Xi Jinping can now stay in power as long as he wants, abolishing the two-term limit (10 years) that was put in place post-Mao precisely to stop one man having too much power in the future. The long-term impact this will have on China has been hotly debated elsewhere, though, as I’ve said before, from a purely sporting perspective there is a positive to be drawn from the fact that China’s long-term football goals are now more likely to stay the course, since the prospect of a new leader who may not like the game is now several years further away.

However, another trend has been that the Communist Party has also grown in power through taking over state institutions, further making a mockery of the supposed separation between the government and the Chinese Football Association (CFA). Despite the fact that recent Chinese football reforms have sought to achieve exactly this separation, in reality the government/Party is all-powerful and still makes all the big decisions – in direct contravention of FIFA laws.

Word of warning: the rest of this is long and pretty dry, but it’s important to know how the sports industry fits into the rest of the political and economic landscape in China – and the implications therein.

Premier’s Work Report

The Olympic Games are heading to…Chengdu?

Currently known as the city to visit if you want to see pandas, Chengdu is looking to put itself on the global sports map, with an official proposal to bid for the 2036 Summer Olympics. 

While most of the talk about the Olympics returning to China has centered on the 2022 Winter Games, it turns out the Summer Olympics may also be coming back to China, too.

As incredible as that sounds, lawmakers in Chengdu – which one forecast says will among the world’s top 30 cities by 2035 – have targeted hosting the 2036 Olympics

Ahead of the more famous national “Two Sessions” held each year in Beijing, cities around the country hold their own local editions, in part to figure out what proposals can be submitted to the main political council in the capital.

Pu Hu, a member of the CPPCC Chengdu Committee, recently submitted a proposal which calls for the city to bid for the 2036 Olympic Games. That sounds like a bold move, but there are a few connections here: at the closing ceremony of the recent Pyeongchang Olympics, China basically marketed itself as the home of pandas – and, as anyone Chinese person can tell you, Chengdu is where most of the cuddly creatures are found. What’s more, there’s even an official “Olympics Panda Family” at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center.

Taxing debates blight Chinese football

CSL clubs approached the transfer window cautiously due to the new 100% transfer tax for foreign players – and the lack of detail surrounding it. But clubs are continuing to look for loopholes and that, coupled with Wanda’s return to Chinese football, could spark a return to spending in the summer. 

[This has been updated following further clarification from the BBC’s Piers Edwards to reflect that Beijing Guoan received a 15% discount on the Bakambu transfer tax, not 20% as originally stated.]

Even casual followers of Chinese football will be aware that things don’t operate in a normal manner over in this part of the world. Which other league in the world, for example, would tolerate a change in the number of foreign players allowed per team *in the middle* of a transfer window, as has happened in the recent past?

But the events of the past few days rank right up there in the head-scratching history of the Chinese Super League (CSL) and – once again – could have profound implications for the global transfer market.

First, a quick recap…

Xi to stay on, Wanda to get out, Tmall turns to F1 and more Milan misery

Here’s a summary of what you can find in my weekly China Digest for SportBusiness:

Official: Xi Jinping to stay on as President past 10-year limit

In China, everything is dominated by politics, which is why the main news of the week – that the ruling Communist Party has proposed removing from the country’s constitution the two-term limit for the President and Vice-President – is still extremely relevant for the sports industry. This change, which had long been rumored and is almost certain to be validated as early as next month, clears the way for Xi Jinping, already viewed as China’s most powerful leader for decades, to stay in power past 2022.

In some sense, this is good news: Xi is known to be a football fan – or is he? – so the country’s long-term soccer reforms plans now look more certain. But as the New Yorker writes:

“China is reentering a period in which the fortunes of a fifth of humanity hinge, to an extraordinary degree, on the visions, impulses, and insecurities of a solitary figure.”