China’s Hockey Squad Shows a Powerhouse’s Weakness: Team Sports

BEIJING — There may be no team at the Olympic Games with more potential to shock — or shame — than China’s men’s hockey squad.

Ranked 32nd in the world and competing in Beijing only because of a tradition granting the host nation an entry in every sport, the team is expected to muster no better than a middling showing on Olympic ice.

No matter the outcome of the team’s Olympic run, which started on Thursday with an 8-0 loss to the youngest American team since 1994, doubts surrounding the squad are symptomatic of China’s persistent stumbles in team sports and reflect an ambitious nation that is built around a collectivist ideal it has often failed to realize at the world’s stadiums and arenas.

Although China is an Olympic powerhouse that trailed only the United States in medals at the Tokyo Games last year, its successes have long largely come in individual events. Until these Games, just eight of China’s 62 Winter Olympics medals came in events involving at least four athletes.

Germany, a country with a fraction of China’s population, won seven at the Pyeongchang Games in 2018.

Team troubles in China, people who have worked in and researched the country’s sports system said, are easy to trace but, even in a society of heavy-handed governance and swelling nationalism, hard to fix.

One explanation is a matter of arithmetic-driven choice. Costly, unwieldy teams of dozens can often add no more than one medal to China’s tally, while individual athletes may bring home one medal after another at a single Games, making them the far more efficient route to national pride.

Doubts surrounding the men’s hockey team are symptomatic of China’s persistent stumbles in team sports.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

The Chinese sports system also relies on players whose promise is discovered at an early age and can be cultivated, one-on-one, for years; in many team sports, the world’s best sometimes clearly emerge only as teenagers.

“With individual sports, you can lock someone in a room for five years and say, ‘Be the best figure skater or Ping-Pong player or whatever,’” said Mark Simon, who coached in Chinese youth leagues for 14 years and was a consultant to Kunlun Red Star, the Beijing men’s hockey team that ultimately supplied every member of China’s Olympic roster. The Olympic squad plays Canada on Sunday.

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“It’s been proven to work,” he added. “But with teams, and big fluid sports like hockey and soccer, it’s different. There are too many mental sides to the game and emotional sides to the game when you’re part of the team that has to be brought along and nurtured.”

There are also relatively few of the grass roots sports networks that are common elsewhere and routinely help other countries build and replenish their reservoirs of next-generation talents.

In the United States, for example, athletes move from one carefully planned phase of development to the next, sometimes having been drawn into team sports like soccer as early as their preschool years. Recreational leagues give way to higher levels of competition and coaching as a narrowing number of players blossom into the people who fill the collegiate and professional ranks.

China’s system, though, sweeps in comparably fewer prospective team sport athletes, partly, researchers say, because athletics are not seen as a lucrative career path. Adding to the challenge is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, which has left many parents especially protective of their offspring and, in turn, more wary than many of the medical risks that can accompany sports.

Still, some Chinese teams have excelled on the international stage, especially in volleyball, a sport in which Chinese women have won three Olympic gold medals. And with only a handful of rivals at the time, a Chinese team forced the United States into penalty kicks before losing the final of the Women’s World Cup in 1999.

“The level was rather low for a while,” said Susan Brownell, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who ran college track in Beijing and has studied China’s sports industry for decades. “A state-supported system like China could put together a team that was competitive.”

As other countries developed increasingly muscular sports systems, especially in women’s sports, China, Brownell said, “could no longer keep up.”

United States forward Ben Meyers celebrated scoring the Americans’ sixth goal.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

More recent efforts to speed along team sports skills in China, like establishing training academies, were curbed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But those strategies are also bumping up against decades of entrenched apathy around team sports.

The Olympics may ultimately underscore that approach’s cost, with the Chinese men chiefly looking to stave off embarrassment in ice hockey, which, like many other winter sports, has never had much of a foothold in the country.

Although China has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, the sport’s governing body, since 1963, it has never had a men’s team play in an Olympic Games until now. (China’s women’s team, which is ranked 20th in the world, previously appeared at the Games in Nagano, Salt Lake City and Vancouver. Although the women competed in Beijing, they did not advance to elimination-round play.)

Federation records show fewer than 14,000 registered players in the country, most of them at the junior level.

The lack of a significant domestic talent pool has also reinforced China’s proclivity to fortify its teams with athletes from abroad. Fewer than half of the men’s hockey team’s players were born in China, with almost all the rest from Canada and the United States. Many are of Chinese heritage, including the team captain, Brandon Yip, who is from the Vancouver area.

Constructing an Olympic roster is not a matter of merely hiring a player for a brief spell, like a Major League Baseball team shoring up its pitching rotation around the trade deadline.

The ice hockey federation, which helps administer the Olympic tournament, requires, among other conditions, that a player be a citizen of a country he represents in the Games — a particular challenge for prospective Chinese players since the country does not recognize dual citizenship.

“You need a passport,” said Luc Tardif, the federation’s president, who spent weeks last year publicly questioning whether the Chinese team even deserved to compete in Beijing and suggesting that Norway was ready to assume its place.

At least one player on the Chinese squad, Jeremy Smith, has said publicly that he did not surrender his U.S. passport in exchange for a chance to play for China; he told ESPN previously that Chinese officials “said that’s fine,” suggesting that China was perhaps bending its rules.

“They kind of came to, I’m guessing, an uneasy marriage,” said Mark Dreyer, who founded the China Sports Insider website and wrote a new book, “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.”

The Chinese players grimaced as a shot on the U.S. goal went just wide.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

“It’s clear,” Dreyer said, “that exceptions can be made.”

China has been preparing for this eventuality since at least 2015, when it was awarded the Winter Games. The next year, China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, joined President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to preside over the signing of a deal that allowed Kunlun Red Star to join the Russia-focused Kontinental Hockey League.

In the orbit of one of the world’s finest leagues, Kunlun was to become a training and proving ground for China’s Winter Olympians. Although Kunlun received plenty of resources, it foundered in the standings. So far this season, Kunlun has posted a 9-39 record, the worst mark in the K.H.L.

Every member of China’s Olympic team plays for Kunlun, fueling the modest expectations in the country for the performance of an Olympic team that came together thanks to bureaucratic maneuvering.

Those expectations have increased, if only slightly, since just before Christmas, when the N.H.L. announced that it would not send its stars to Beijing for the Games. But the hope is less for a gold medal than for avoiding overt humiliation.

Dong Lu, a television host, sports commentator and a founder of China Football Boys, a national youth club, said he did not believe every Chinese team was doomed to fail in international competition. But the hockey team, he suggested, had a ceiling, at least for now.

“Naturalization may improve our competence,” he said, “but it can’t make up the gap between us and the world’s advanced level.”

Claire Fu contributed research.

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