On icy luge tracks, Chinese and US Olympians navigate distractions, disruptions while training for Beijing

·10-min read

Ashley Farquharson rocks back and forth in her sled, grabs the start bars and hurtles down the icy track, hitting speeds of up to 128 kilometres per hour (80mph) before coming to rest.

Farquharson and fellow USA Luge team members are honing their skills and dreaming of medals at this refrigerated training centre in Lake Placid, New York, in preparation for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. But uncertainty over the highly contagious Covid-19 Delta variant and calls to boycott because of China’s human rights record have her and teammates working to block out the distractions.

“There’s always going to be bad things in the world, whether we go or not,” said Farquharson, 22. “If I missed it, that would be a huge letdown. I don’t know if I can put words to it.”

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Seven thousand miles away, Chinese sliders – as luge athletes call themselves – harbour similar dreams but longer odds. Inspired by President Xi Jinping’s call to prioritise winter sports in helping achieve the “Chinese dream”, Beijing hopes to mint champions in previously untried sports, including luge.

Over the past five years, it has hired foreign coaches, marshalled legions of assistants and arm-twisted adolescents into a sport many never heard of.

But luge, the fastest Olympic sport, is notoriously difficult. Sleds are steered by minute body adjustments using skills perfected over a decade or more, a challenge China may have underestimated in its quest for gold and glory.

“A lot of the people who don’t know the sport think you just ride down the hill,” said American Tony Benshoof, one of China’s foreign coaches, who competed for 17 years before winning a medal. “You’re fighting over not tenths but hundredths of a second.”

Lugers can hit speeds of up to 80 miles (128 kilometres) an hour on the track, making it the fastest Olympic sport. Pictured, American Chris Mazdzer competing in Austria in 2018. Photo: Fred Zimny/USA Luge
Lugers can hit speeds of up to 80 miles (128 kilometres) an hour on the track, making it the fastest Olympic sport. Pictured, American Chris Mazdzer competing in Austria in 2018. Photo: Fred Zimny/USA Luge

The Olympics, scheduled for February 4-20, are a source of pride for Beijing, the first city to host the Summer and Winter Games. It is also among the most controversial in recent memory.

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US, Canadian, European lawmakers and more than 180 civic groups have called for a boycott over reported human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.

“We’re trying to tell Communist China to stop, and telling the Olympic Committee not to have it in China,” Sonam Norbu, a Tibetan activist, said at a recent protest outside the Chinese consulate in New York. “The Olympics should be in a good country.”

As China has grown wealthier, more powerful and more defiant, Western governments have voiced frustration at their inability to influence Beijing over human rights, state-led capitalism and military muscle-flexing.

With China’s prestige on the line, some see the Olympics as a rare opportunity to apply pressure and show Chinese their leadership is less respected abroad than state propaganda suggests.

“It comes around the time of the 2022 Party Congress, and it relates to Xi Jinping’s overall image,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund. “This is one of the rare areas where you have leverage.”

Han Zirong, secretary general of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Winter Games, waves the Olympic flag during a handover ceremony in Beijing in 2018. Photo: Reuters
Han Zirong, secretary general of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Winter Games, waves the Olympic flag during a handover ceremony in Beijing in 2018. Photo: Reuters

China’s foreign ministry has warned that any boycott will spur a “robust” response. “It will not gain support from the international community and is doomed to fail,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin.

The White House has denied discussing with allies a complete boycott, a step that lacks broad support, would be of questionable effectiveness and would see athletes paying the biggest price.

“I’m not trying to minimise what’s happening to the Uygurs. But boycotts won’t help them,” said Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, a US Naval War College historian and author of Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War. “Athletes suffer, it does not change policy and looks weak.”

“The Biden administration does not want to do this. But they’re also in a tough situation,” he added. “They can’t ignore it.”

That has left Western governments exploring other ways to express their displeasure, including support for a diplomatic boycott, with world leaders and top officials pointedly staying away; encouraging individual protests by athletes; and discouraging multinational companies and sponsors from advertising.

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Sliders training in the shadow of an ageing 1980 Olympic ski jump in Lake Placid fear Beijing could echo the summer Tokyo Summer Games, with the Games delayed, vaccinated athletes forced to withdraw after testing positive for Covid-19, stands empty, record low TV ratings and families unable to attend.

“They tell us Tokyo will be a blueprint for Beijing,” said slider Brittney Arndt, 23. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Beijing’s strict quarantine system has also raised questions about a Luge World Cup qualifying match at China’s new bobsled, luge and skeleton track in Yanqing in November. The prospect of spending weeks in a hotel room during peak training period could see many skip it, leaving them to compete in the Olympics without many Yanqing practice runs.

During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, American slider Emily Sweeney suffered a bad crash on curve 12 of the new US$115 million track. “I curled my head and that saved me,” said Sweeney, 28, on a break from training.

And in 2010, Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili died after crashing during an Olympic training run in Whistler, British Columbia.

“It can be dangerous,” said Chris Mazdzer, 33, a silver medallist at the 2018 Olympics. “We need a certain number of runs for safety.”

Sled designs are also on USA Luge’s mind as it prepares to face off against powerhouses Germany, Austria, Russia and Latvia. “Are we as strong in technology now? We’re not,” said head coach Robert Fegg. “But we recognise that, and are putting effort into where it belongs.”

“Changing the direction of the boat always takes time.”

As does building the sled from scratch.

Liechtenstein native Wolfgang Schädler, who coached the USA Luge team for 24 years and Russia’s for five, was considering retiring in early 2015 when China approached him about starting its national programme. A visit to Beijing quickly followed and he signed on the spot.

“It took me all of a couple of minutes to decide,” he said. “It’s a fascinating country and a great opportunity.”

Schädler recruited Benshoof and, with no athletes in the pipeline, gave the Chinese a shopping list: they should be strong but not muscle-bound; tall but not gangly; from sports with explosive starts, including track, dancing, swimming and gymnastics.

And not too young – some Germans start at six – since time was short.

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Within days, the Chinese returned with 150 prospects asking Schädler if he wanted 500 more. That’s already too many, he told them, winnowing the field to 20.

The Chinese luge association initially dreamed of gold but soon lowered its expectations.

“At the beginning, everyone said medals. I said impossible,” said Schädler. “That will take another one or two generations.”

The foreign coaches insisted the team learn some English to reduce misunderstanding, like “rolling into a turn” that doesn’t easily translate. They have also tried to head off distractions given a small army of sports officials, functionaries, physiotherapists and coaches from the Communist Party-led sports system.

“I still do not totally understand the hierarchy,” said Benshoof. “It’s been a struggle for sure. They have their ideas that don’t work out. But all in all, they’ve been good.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with athletes and coaches during a tour of venues for the 2022 Olympics at the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing on January 18. Photo: Xinhua via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks with athletes and coaches during a tour of venues for the 2022 Olympics at the Capital Gymnasium in Beijing on January 18. Photo: Xinhua via AP

Other challenges include a bias among Chinese officials that, if a five-mile run is good, 25 miles is better. Team members also disappeared, presumably moved to another sport. And during their first competitive season in Europe, the entire team was suddenly called back to China without explanation.

“It took quite a while before they came back,” said Schädler. “We lost several months. It was kind of frustrating.”

But the coaches say there’s also lots of support, resources and, in general, leeway to run the programme their way. China’s luge association did not respond to a request for comment.

“They do everything in their power to help,” said Schädler. “But sometimes their hands are bound.”

Many of the young Chinese sliders had never left China. One challenge: finding Chinese food.

“It’s a big factor, actually. They really struggle with Western food,” said Benshoof. “I brought them to a Mexican place one time, I don’t think they ate a drop.”

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But the pandemic has afforded the nascent Chinese team one advantage: it will have much more practice on the new track than rivals, given travel restrictions.

“They could have a better Olympics than they would normally,” said USA Luge Association spokesman Sandy Caligiore. “It’s a good thing they’re getting 400 extra runs, not the Germans.”

Foreign coaches and competitors note the team’s impressive progress, helped by a strong work ethic and Schädler’s slow but steady approach. “I enjoy work with Chinese kids, there is respect there. In the Western world, you see that going away,” Schädler said.

This contrasts with an early appearance at Latvia’s Sigulda training camp, which was described as painful. “I couldn’t watch,” said Fegg. “But the chance of their embarrassing themselves at their home games now is almost zero.”

China’s initial medalling hopes may have been fuelled by South Korea, which created a similar “instant” luge team before its 2018 Pyeongchang games that saw three sliders reach the top 10.

But this involved in part “buying” talent as German-born slider Aileen Frisch secured Korean citizenship shortly before the games. “That’s just not how you do this. The Chinese never even brought it up,” said Schädler. “If I buy people, I can make a great team in four to five years. My goal to make our own statement.”

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South Korea hired Fegg, the current US head coach, in 2014 to create its luge programme involving a similar steep learning curve and gold medal expectations. “The first year I was close to a heart attack,” he said. “They were like kamikazes going down the track.”

Unable to pronounce Korean names, Fegg gave everyone German names. One recruit’s only qualification was having watched luge on TV. Fegg also faced down impatient Korean coaches eager to race ahead without having athletes master the basics.

“Oh, the fights we had,” he said. “There were a few where I thought they would send us up to the North.”

Several American sliders say they applaud China’s interest in luge, and hope it lasts beyond 2022, for the good of the sport and healthy competition. “Obviously Xi Jinping made the order for winter sports, I think they will continue,” said Schädler.

With less than six months until the opening ceremony, athletes hope the Games go ahead unhampered by factors they cannot control, including politics and disease.

“Obviously you train your whole life for this and to miss it, that’s real tough,” said American slider Tucker West, 24. “My job is to be an athlete.”

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