A minefield for foreign coaches

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am

'I have no regrets living in this country, but professionally, I shouldn't have chosen it as a work place.'

This was the opinion of canoeing guru Josef Capousek after his China Olympic dream turned into a personal nightmare. The 62-year-old, who guided Germany to 18 Olympic gold medals in his 14-year reign, was given the boot last month after falling foul of canoeing officials who were worried he couldn't deliver the gold he had 'promised'.

He's not alone. China has hired up to 60 foreign coaches at national-team level since 2004 to help prepare for Beijing 2008, according to deputy sports minister Cui Dalin, but only half remained at the end of last year. China has virtually no heritage in canoeing and kayak and won its only Olympic medal in Athens, when Yang Wenjun and Meng Guanliang sneaked a five-boat photo finish in the C2 500m class.

Soon after his arrival in 2005, Capousek found himself at odds with the military-style regime. Administrators would confiscate mobile phones and lap-tops from athletes and insisted on a 10pm curfew, but the worst part for Capousek was the year-round training camp in the middle of nowhere.

'Every day was the same and I think young people deserve to see more of the world,' he said. 'Maybe I pushed too hard and wanted to change too much all at the same time. That could have started the conflicts.'

This strikes a chord with former Chinese Football Association (CFA) official Xie Qiang. 'It was exactly the same as [Bobby] Houghton's experience,' said Xie, who worked as the Briton's interpreter during his tenure as head coach of the national soccer team in the late 1990s. 'The CFA administrators often over-ruled his decisions to give the players more breaks.

'The sports system here, contrary to western custom, gives priority to national interests over individual values. Plus, coaches here often have to put up with overbearing officials and lack full authority over team management. There is just way too much politics.'

But not every coaching import has left on a sour note. Kim Chang-back, the South Korean hockey master, has been women's head coach since 2000. His successful transformation of the team from minnows to gold-medal contenders has earned universal respect.

'I think coaches from Asian neighbours or former socialist countries know better how things work out in the strait-jacketed system,' said Xie. But that's no help to Capousek, who helped China qualify for a record nine of 12 events.

'China will, for sure, bag three or four medals ... I helped shape that progress,' Capousek said. 'But anything less than a gold medal here means nothing. The politics is sometimes awful.

'Some of my Chinese colleagues reported my everyday routine to higher-ranking officials. When we won a record number of Olympic places, there was not a single hug or handshake.'