Everybody knows where Olaf Tufte
is training. It’s easy, it’s on his
website. Most people know where
the British men’s four have been
hanging out. Simple, it’s in the
British press. And it’s not
complicated to find the latest
results from the United States
national team's rowing tests. No
problem, they’re regularly updated
on the US Rowing website.
But what’s going on in China?
© Peter Spurrier
China has always been a mystery when it
comes to rowing. Popping up at the odd
international race, then disappearing,
only to reappear next time with a
seemingly new group of athletes.
The gold-winning lightweight women’s quad at Lucerne / Le quatre de couple poids léger médaillé d’or à Lucerne:
Ou (b), Wang, Li, Zhou (s).
Deputy Director of Chinese water sports
administration Aijie Liu says that this is
China’s advantage as rowers are able to be
full-time, government-supported athletes.
The explanation lies somewhere amidst
the vastly populated country where the
sporting system is controlled by the
government but rooted in the provinces,
and there exists a strong cultural
resistance to outside influences. But
currently the country is pulling in foreign
coaches, hiring top European and western
scientists and looking to establish a
European base, all in the name of the big
push for 2008 Beijing Olympic medals.
Liu estimates that there are more than
10,000 rowers. “Two thousand of them
spend more than 12 hours on training
and competition every week. Three
thousand of them spend about six hours
on training every week.” There is also
some masters rowing.
About 130 athletes are now training with
Grinko at the winter training centre in
Guangzhou, near Hong Kong. All are
full-time athletes and, apart from national
holidays, training will continue until
Beijing 2008. A new summer training
centre, in the north, is near completion
and a base in Europe, with their own fleet
of boats, is being established.
Sport in China is planned primarily at the
provincial level using local and national
government funding with centralised
control by the China Sports General
“When I came here the training situation
refreshed my memory,” says newly
appointed Head Coach Igor Grinko
(formally of USSR and USA). “It's
almost as if I’m back in USSR. I can
make physiology tests; we have doctors,
But Liu admits that rowing is not very
well-known. Athletes gravitate to the
popular sports and often those who end
up rowing are, what former team manager
Wu Hau describes as, ‘the leftovers’ from
swimming and basketball. “We are short
of the culture of rowing, including the
technical feeling,” says Liu who sees the
training focus in the past cemented in
hard work rather than technique.
With rowing based in the provinces, pro-
ducing a national team is a challenge and
in the past Chinese teams racing at Rowing
World Cups and World Rowing Champion-
ships have often been built exclusively
around provincial crews.
This year Grinko had to
wait to fill his national
training centre until after
the Chinese National
Games (in October),
which rank second only to
the Olympics in terms of
prestige, but perhaps even
first in terms of honour
and financial reward.
These Games are based
solely on inter-provincial
Currently the top two single scullers
from the National Games are Cui
Yonghui (best erg score, 6:00) and Jing
Ziwei (best erg score 6: 34). Ziwei fills
the gap left by China’s most successful
rower, Xiuyun Zhang (three World
Championship medals and an Olympic
silver medal) who retired last year. Also
coming into their own has been the
lightweight women. China won back-to-back World Championship titles in the
lightweight women’s quad (2003 and
2004). Then the women’s eight got
within striking distance of an Olympic
medal in 2004 when they finished fourth
and just two seconds outside of a medal.
Liu is very open about his intentions for
the rowing community. "We must win a
rowing gold at the Beijing Olympics,”
says Liu. “We do not merely dream for
the breakthrough, instead it's a must."
China has only ever won two Olympic
medals in rowing, last time in 1996.
© Detlev Seyb
The two lightweight women’s quads in the Final at Lucerne. / Les deux quatre
de couple poids léger féminin lors de la finale à Lucerne.
Despite rowing’s lack of prominence Liu
points to the renewed focus which
includes a reality TV show to find
coxswains. “We will choose the
coxswain from 10 million participants.
There will be 300 million spectators.”