Not so long ago China's push to become a Winter Olympic power came off as almost cute. The scramble to fill out overmatched teams with nearly any warm body, the earnest transplanting of divers and gymnasts onto rinks and moguls: It all edged close to Jamaican-bobsled territory—fun, intriguing and certainly no threat. Even when Han Xiaopeng won China's first winter gold outside of speedskating, in Turin in 2006, the backstory got as much play as the breakthrough; before becoming an aerial skier, reports snickered, the former acrobat had never even seen snow.
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 2010 issue
Now, though, it's clear that Han's victory was less an anomaly than the start of a trend. In Vancouver, Han is ranked just fifth on an aerial team thick with medal contenders. China's biggest-ever winter delegation boasts athletes gunning for wins in snowboarding halfpipe and curling, and the Chinese rise to power is seen, says USOC high-performance director Jay T. Kearney, as "inevitable."
Five years ago Ben Wainwright, the owner of Glacier Snowboard Camp in Whistler and a guru in the sport, learned firsthand how the China Way of spying talent, tapping foreign coaches and spending freely can broaden a country's success. Determined to expand its winter reach beyond speedskating, Chinese officials hired Wainwright to work with 12 former martial artists and gymnasts, all in their early teens—and three coaches—for six weeks at his camp. None knew the most basic halfpipe spins or flips. It didn't matter.
"They would just do it—without fear," Wainwright says. "They were totally confident in what you were saying. The Chinese riders were having the best time of their life, but their focus was on a goal: becoming better, getting to the Olympics, winning the Olympics."
Soon, all were doing sophisticated spins and jumps, their body-control training having prepared them perfectly for aerial work. When Tom Hutchinson, Canada's head snowboarding coach, saw the group in action, his first thought, he says, was, "Crap—we're in trouble."
The best prospect was a 13-year-old girl named Liu Jiayu, nicknamed Birdie for a sparrow she saw diving over Blackcomb Glacier in Whistler. At 11 Liu had been spotted by sports officials, shifted from martial arts to snowboarding and moved from her hometown of Hegang to the winter training hub of Harbin—the kind of top-down targeting, Kearney says, that's impossible in the West. But Liu's training in Harbin had been rough; when Wainwright took on Birdie & Co., he was told that they had jumped snowboards only on a trampoline.
"She wanted desperately to be better," Wainwright says of Liu. "The way she picked up everything was amazing. Within two months she went from never being in a halfpipe to having a World Cup run good enough to make the top 10."
Liu's breakout, though, didn't come until last year, when she won the halfpipe world championship and finished second in an event at the Olympic venue against a field loaded with American and Australian stars. "She just sprang on the scene," says defending Olympic champion Hannah Teter, who finished third. "I was like, 'Who is she?'"
Now, despite a language barrier and a results-only approach at odds with snowboarding's laid-back ethos, the 17-year-old Liu is firmly established among the sport's elite. And as in aerial skiing four years ago, China is poised to win a medal in a new sport by dint, it seems, of merely focusing its attention. The long-dominant U.S. women may find the Chinese indifference to "fun" stifling, but they make no bones about calling Liu—along with teammates Cai Xuetong and Sun Zhifeng, currently ranked 1--2 in the World Cup halfpipe rankings—a permanent threat. "They have a lot invested in the sport," says 2002 halfpipe gold medalist Kelly Clark. "We are going to see them around for a while."
And they won't be alone. "By next Olympics, I think the [Chinese] guys should be able to threaten as much as the girls," Wainwright says. "Everybody knows they're coming."
One of China's advantages is having the financial resources to make such shifts worthwhile. Success in Turin begat a surge in corporate interest, and with sponsorships from such companies as Nike and General Electric—as well as a national sports lottery—some Chinese winter programs have grown flush. That first crop of Chinese snowboarders prompted Hutchinson to try replicating the results with a handful of Canadian divers and gymnasts, but after a few years his funding was cut. No one envisions Beijing dropping such an ax anytime soon.
"China," Hutchinson says with a laugh, "never says, 'We don't have the money.'"