Olympic legend Redgrave joins growing foreign cast in China

Shanghai (AFP) –


Britain's decorated Olympic rower Steve Redgrave is just the latest foreign name lured to China as part of a broader drive by the ambitious country to ramp up its fortunes on the sporting world stage.

The five-time gold medallist said this week that he was taking up the post of high-performance director of Chinese rowing, on what is likely to be a bumper pay packet.

China, who will host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, have been busy hiring foreign expertise in senior coaching roles in a range of sports in recent years.

Chief among them is the World Cup-winning football coach Marcello Lippi, who is tasked with finally making China competitive at the international level.

The 70-year-old Italian is reportedly the second best-paid football coach on the planet after Manchester United's Jose Mourinho, earning a whopping $26 million a year in China, according to France Football magazine.

Chinese football clubs in particular have hired foreign coaches, often on high salaries.

The 56-year-old Redgrave said his new challenge was much more than just a ceremonial post.

"My decision to take the position in China was not one I made lightly," said Redgrave, who will manage a new coaching structure in Chinese rowing aimed at achieving success at the World Championships and Olympic Games.

Redgrave hinted that he was looking long term: "With the Tokyo Olympics (in 2020) fast approaching and looking ahead to Paris in 2024, the new role in China will be demanding."

China won their only Olympic rowing gold medal in the quadruple sculls at the Beijing 2008 Games -- when the team also benefited from foreign coaching.

- 'Foreign legion' -

February's Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea were another example of China drafting in overseas help to shore up areas of weakness.

On the face of it, what Chinese state media called "a legion of foreign experts" enjoyed little success in Pyeongchang, China winning one gold medal and nine medals overall.

But state sports authorities -- who spent months prior to the Olympics playing down expectations -- are much more focused on Beijing 2022, when overseas coaches and their Chinese charges will be expected to deliver.

China's "foreign legion" in Pyeongchang officially comprised 20 foreign coaches, fitness trainers and technical experts, according to the China Daily newspaper.

Ni Huizhong, a senior sports official, suggested that China reluctantly embraced outside help.

"To make up for our weakness in winter sports, especially on snow, we have no better solutions than combining experiences from overseas with our own traditions to make it an effective programme for 2022," Ni said.

It is a trend that took off at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, when China surged to the top of the medals table.

China employed 11 overseas coaches at London 2012 and 29 four years later in Rio -- and is seen as especially keen to do well in 2020, when the Olympics will be hosted by its arch-rival, Japan.

The country is also extending the foreign recruitment drive in looking for experts to help organise the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, the organising committee said on Tuesday.

- 'Change the structure' -

So what will Redgrave face in attempting to inspire China to rowing gold?

Aside from the obvious language barrier, foreign coaches working in China -- attracted by the money and large talent pool that comes with a population of 1.4 billion -- have bemoaned the rigid, Soviet-style sports structure.

Jeff Pain, an Olympic silver medallist for Canada in 2006, is trying to build China's skeleton team from scratch.

The chance to put something together from nothing is another attractive proposition for foreign coaches weighing up offers from China.

But Pain has also bemoaned the "many layers of decision-making in the sports system" and complained in Pyeongchang about not being given enough control.

Bjorn Kristiansen, a coach for China at the Olympics in cross-country skiing, said the bureaucracy is slowly improving.

"It seems now you have some visionary people around who want to change the structure," the Norwegian told state media.