Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Foreign coaches are a tough fit in Chinese sports system


Foreign coaches are a tough fit in Chinese sports system

Some foreign coaches feel a culture clash with a Chinese sports system that resists change even as it demands near-immediate results.

By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 8, 2008

BEIJING -- Joseph Capousek, 62, sits drinking German beer, trying to make sense of it. Hired in 2005 as coach of China's canoeing and kayaking team, he was sacked in June, six weeks before the Olympics.

The Czech-born German national was hired to introduce ideas and techniques to a sport in which China had limited experience but outsized ambitions. Over a 25-year career, he had guided German paddlers to 18 Olympic gold medals.

Yet, Capousek said, he ran into a system that resisted change while demanding near-immediate results. The obsession was so great that the Chinese-language version of his contract, which he couldn't read, said he would guarantee a gold medal. The German translation merely cited it as a goal.

"This is crazy, stupid. How can you guarantee a medal?" he said. "They don't understand anything about sport if they say that."

He acknowledged that he probably tried to change too much too quickly. But he said there was no long-term planning, only endless practice.

Capousek also said many sports officials were more intent on personal gain than national glory, describing some who left on trips abroad with empty suitcases that were full of luxury goods on their return, apparently paid for by others.

The Sports Ministry declined to comment on Capousek's comments or departure. A New China News Agency report said his results were far below expectation.

Capousek is the latest of several foreign coaches to run into culture clashes with China's insular sports system.

"They want the knowledge, but won't accept the new system with it," said Francesco Liello, Beijing correspondent of Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport.

The relentless focus on training can take a toll on athletes too. Xu Cuijuan, a distance runner and cyclist at provincial and national levels from 1993 to 2002, said she felt betrayed by a system that used her, then left her with little education, insurance or future.

"The coaches were very strict and hit or scolded us," she said. "After practice, sometimes I couldn't sleep or walk downstairs to the toilet because of all the blisters, my blackened toenails falling off."

Since being dropped by the team in 2003, she has worked at a golf course picking up golf balls for $140 a month. But others said differences over coaching style and a lack of athlete free choice were relative.

"Athletes have to give up some personal opportunity to achieve big Olympic goals," said Huang Yaning, head of the Olympic Studies Center at Beijing Sports University. "The system inspires people to move forward and become stronger."


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