Beginners to champions: China rises to dominate Winter Paralympics

China has emerged as a new Winter Paralympics powerhouse at its own Beijing Games, topping the medals table in a stunning success, aided by huge investments and aided by a lack of Russian athletes.

Sunday’s hosts finished proud at the top of the table with a total of 18 golds and 61 medals – a remarkable rise considering they only made their debut at the Winter Paralympics in 2002 and the country won its first just four years ago in Pyeongchang Medal, gold in wheelchair curling.

“The Games have given people with disabilities a lot of confidence,” said gold-medal cross-country skier Mao Zhongwu.

China’s Paralympic success story, say longtime observers of the Games, is one of money, foreign coaches, the absence of Russian athletes, hard work and – perhaps – homeland advantage.

Recruitment of talent such as Russian para-hockey coach Nikolay Sharshukov and Italian alpine ski coach Dario Capelli helped produce medal contenders.

Capelli said you have to go back to basics to take a roster from rookies to champions.

“For these athletes, for 11 months, it was ski training, ski training every day… I don’t know what other country can do that,” he said.

“On the first day we did a test with them on a track where they had to do five turns. We found that they were all beginners.”

China’s General Administration of Sports had a budget of $1 billion in 2021, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a significant amount has been invested in winter sports.

The think tank noted that Australia, which was successful at the Summer Games, had a $124 million sports budget, while American athletes were entirely privately funded.

“The Chinese mentality is: If you want something, you want the top. You invest a lot of money. That’s very important,” Capelli said.

Sara Svoboda, a researcher in sports psychology at Loughborough University, said China’s success may be due to strong campaign planning and the military’s use of psychological strategies.

“Her strong performance could be the result of aligning a vision and mission across the Paralympic squad, including support staff, helping to mobilize effort and create an overarching vision that drives her team forward,” she said.

Small crowds of handpicked domestic spectators cheered for Chinese victories, dancing to pop music and waving flags.

At the para snowboard cross finals, China swept clean the medals in the men’s upper limb category.

The ecstatic trio – Ji Lijia, Wang Pengyao and Zhu Yonggang – wore their country’s flag like cloaks at the celebration.

Cliff Mallett, a former elite Australian track and field coach and now a University of Queensland academic, said home field advantage might spur some athletes to greater heights but may increase stress for others.

“I assume that in Chinese society it would be beneficial to compete at home as Chinese people take pride in representing their country in front of their relatives, friends and villages. their social identity is very strong,” he said.

“But everyone will be different. I expect some will feel that pressure and underperform as a result.”

The absence of powerful Russian athletes – who were banned from the Games after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – also paved the way for more Chinese successes.

Russian athletes, who competed as neutrals in Pyeongchang four years ago, won eight gold, ten silver and nine bronze medals.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) originally ruled that athletes from Russia and ally Belarus could compete neutrally, but banned the two countries 24 hours later after boycott threats and tensions in the athletes’ village.

IPC President Andrew Parsons acknowledged the impact of Russia’s absence.

“Obviously some of them are very strong athletes and in a way that has affected the depth of field in some events,” he said.

The scale of China’s success in Beijing surprised even some of their own athletes.

“We weren’t really aware of our level before this Paralympic Games,” said Liu Sitong, 27, who won two bronze and one silver medals in women’s alpine skiing sitting, “because we haven’t been competing abroad a lot lately to have.”

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