Bemusement and beer for axed canoeing coach

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2008, 12:00am

There's only one way to cheer yourself up after tumbling unexpectedly down the side of the mainland's complex sports pyramid.

Eat German sausages, drink German beer - and reflect.

That's the remedy a disappointed but philosophical Josef Capousek prescribed for himself after being unceremoniously sacked as China's canoeing and kayak coach on Wednesday.

But it's the shock of his sacking, not the beer, that is affecting his grey matter, it seems.

'My concentration is gone. I forgot to bring along my Chinese apartment address card,' the 62-year-old German tells this column in a German restaurant in Beijing's embassy district, 24 hours after his dismissal.

'I'm not sure how I will make it back to where I live tonight. It [forgetting his address] has never happened before, ever since I arrived in China,' he says, as much to himself as his dining partner.

Such bafflement is the order of the day, a befitting end perhaps to what will probably go down as the most sour chapter in the legendary career of Capousek - one of the most successful canoeing and kayak coaches who guided German paddlers to 18 Olympic gold medals in a 14-year reign.

You might have thought that such a glowing resume would guarantee job security for life; a high-profile, respected and well-paid role in any other country of his choosing.

All nations, that is, except China, where the wheels of sport spin in a different way. Demands for success are high - and immediate.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics was to be Capousek's sixth Games, marking 24 years of training paddlers to the highest standard and watching them collect gold.

But 44 days before achieving that milestone, mainland sports authorities announced their decision to 'prematurely terminate' Capousek's contract.

One can only surmise the relationship between the coach and the administration had reached such a low that parting ways was the only solution.

Feuds between coaches and the rulers of the nation's intricate centralised sports machine are in a different league to the rest of the world. The history books show foreign coaches might sign up with dreams of glory - but they sign at their peril.

Coaches of the national soccer team come and go like spring tides, The smart money would be on men's coach Vladimir Petrovic being giving his marching orders after failing miserably in the Asian World Cup qualifiers.

And the women's football team has been going through managers like a knife through butter. Swede Marika Domansky-Lyfors left after eight months due to disputes on training methods, while her replacement, Elizabeth Loisel, had an even shorter tenure, accusing administrators of backstabbing and engaging in a power struggle which undermined her authority.

Capousek's experience mirrors Loisel's.

'Every day the training regime was the same for young athletes,' he said. 'I believe such youngsters deserve to see more of the world.'

He said he upset officials by asking for more leave for the canoers and kayakers. 'Maybe I pushed too hard and wanted to change too much at once,' he muses.

Soon after his arrival in 2005, Capousek found himself at odds with the military-style governance that controls the lives of mainland athletes, who live most of the year in isolation from friends and family.

But the main reason for his shock sacking was seemingly failing to meet the sports masters' bottom line - gold medals. In their eyes, the training methods of one of the best coaches in the business weren't even coming close to guaranteeing glory at the canoeing course in August.

And such looming failure meant he was breaking his contract - a sackable offence, according to Wei Di, the director of Water Sports Administrative Centre, which falls under the mainland sports ministry.

'He has not delivered what we expected from him,' said Wei, who said the German's initial promise was to 'guarantee' China a gold medal at the Olympics. 'Plus, the culture shock factor undermined our mutual efforts to co-operate with each other, though he has brought a lot of encouraging changes to the team.'

Capousek blamed a translation error that led to unattainable expectations. He claims the canoeing federation had a clause in the Chinese language version of his contract, stating he 'must' win a gold in August.

'My translated German version named gold as the aim,' he explains. 'Nobody can guarantee a gold in any sport. But here, anything less than gold means nothing - regardless of what kind of other improvements you made.'

China has qualified in nine of the 12 events at the Olympics - the most in the history of a country with virtually no heritage in the disciplines.

'When we won the record number of Olympic qualifications, there was not even a single handshake from my Chinese colleagues. Many of them, I believe, know very little about canoeing and kayaking,' he said.

China won its only kayak Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 through Yang Wenjun and Meng Guanliang, who triumphed in a photo finish involving five boats in the C2 class. Capousek ponders in between a bite of sausage and swig of beer, before giving his verdict. It's damning when it comes.

'The officials want quick success. That is tied to their promotion and benefits. They don't have a vision - a sense of continuity to work for the long-term construction of the sport, in say five or six years,' he claims.

'China's sports officials don't know who should be in the office, or in the sport. There is no planning ahead at all. There is too much politics. Some of my colleagues reported my everyday routine to higher ranking officials. They care way too much about immediate delivery.'

Old hand

Number of years Capousek (pictured) has been involved in top-flight canoe and kayak training: 24