Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tough Call

The Canadian coach of the Chinese curling team has created a fracas after both the women's and men's teams faltered in the last few days.
While the Chinese women beat heavy favourite Canada on Sunday, China was beaten by bottom-seed Russia, along with two other losses, resulting in Dan Rafael's anger bubbling over.
"I'm furious," he told reporters after the loss to Russia on Monday. "The problem with this team is that they have no passion. It's their job."
Li Dongyan, the team leader and general secretary of the Chinese Curling Association tried to do some damage control, denying that Rafael had been told to avoid critical comments; instead he explained that the Canadian coach was spending too much time talking to the media and not enough to the players.
"The players have to wait for a half-hour, at least," said Li. "So I just told him to cut down the time, not to keep quiet. That's a different meaning. You can take five or 10 minutes. We have nine games plus two games for playoffs; if every time he's here for a half-hour, they have to wait in the locker-room. Just cut down on the time."
The Chinese are not used to being in the centre of a controversy especially when the host country is mad about curling, while almost the whole of China has no clue what curling is.
Rafael was hired by the Chinese over two years ago, taught them some strategy, techniques and soon the two teams were onto a successful track, particularly the women.
But the language barrier has been difficult for him to deal with, as Rafael has to talk through an interpreter and doesn't know if his message is being effectively communicated across to the players.
He also doesn't accept the Chinese sports system that expects athletes to practice several hours a day everyday without hardly any breaks.
Before the curling event began at this year's Olympics, Rafael was unhappy that Chinese officials wouldn't allow the curlers to do interviews until after their first match. And also the players hardly had any free time, with officials keeping them on a detailed busy schedule for every hour of the day.'
"If I showed you my schedule, you'd drop to the ground," said Rafael. "You're told when to get up, when to eat, when to sleep. I don't think they can breathe without fear of losing control. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It's just the way it is."
But in the meantime while the Chinese men won't make the medal round, he has no idea how the women will do, as their curling has been so inconsistent.
"I don't know who is going to show up," he told reporters, trembling with anger. "The team that played Canada or the team that played Russia? I don't know what to do anymore. At this point, it's not whether we finish first or fourth. If you're going to show up and play like this, you might as well stay in your room.
"My personal view, my opinion, is I don't think they have the passion most curlers have," Rafael continued. "If you were in their shoes, wouldn't you have passion? Wouldn't being in your first Olympics and representing your country, motivate you? I don't know what they're thinking. I really don't. They're not children. They're adults."
The Chinese women's skip, Wang Bingyu tried to deflect their coach's criticism. "Of course we love curling," she said. "Not many people from China know about curling. We don't have a club and we keep playing."
And that's the difference between most amateur athletes in the Olympics and those in state-run programs -- the passion.
Many Olympic athletes sacrifice a lot of time and money to pursue what they love, their parents driving them to competitions and shouting encouragement from the stands, and helping out with fundraising. Meanwhile in China, the government completely funds the sport, but the athletes are expected to practice day in and day out, secluded from their families and friends. While both systems are different, it seems the former makes winning a medal -- any medal -- all the more satisfying.
Afterwards, former athletes of most western countries are able to develop careers after they retire from the sport, whether it be a coach or in sports administration, public speaking or otherwise, while China seems to neglect many of its former stars, letting many of them fade into obscurity without much education or connections to help them network.
Zou Chunlan is one example. She was once a professional weightlifter and had 14 medals to her name and made the national team. But after she was laid off the team in 2000, she received 75,000 RMB ($9,400) as a one-off compensation for her injuries, but because she only had the equivalent of a Grade 3 education, she resorted to being a masseuse in a public bathhouse.
So maybe Rafael is right -- but the Games aren't over yet -- maybe the Chinese women's curling team will prove him wrong.
Perhaps Rafael is trying to avoid blame for the Chinese curling teams' poor performance so far.
As his contract ends in June, he's already expressed that he won't be renewing, effectively closing the chapter on his Chinese experience.

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