China has spent billions of dollars preparing for next year’s Winter Olympics. It has built entire ski resorts from scratch, constructed an array of new venues and even made plans to generate vast amounts of fake snow. But there is at least one shortcoming that all that spending has not been able to overcome.
With the Games only months away, hockey’s global governing body is giving serious consideration to dropping China’s hockey team from the men’s competition. The reason? China is simply not good enough, and it appears likely to face a series of blowout defeats after having been drawn in the same pool as the powerhouse teams from the United States and Canada.
The fate of China’s participation could be decided as early as next week in Zurich at a board meeting of the governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation. If it is dropped, China would become the first host nation to be removed from the Olympic hockey competition since hosting rights guaranteed participation, a tradition that started at the Turin Games in 2006.
The decision has significant stakes for all involved. The hockey federation, and International Olympic Committee officials, will be at pains not to anger a host nation, and certainly not one as powerful as China. And while the removal of the team would be an embarrassment for China, heavy defeats at the hands of geopolitical rivals — and especially the United States — might be even more unwelcome for China’s top leader, Xi Jinping. He has made the Beijing Games a top priority as China prepares for an opportunity to showcase its relative success in taming the coronavirus and its ever-growing affluence and influence.
Still, the risk of Chinese humiliation rose last month when the International Olympic Committee announced that it had reached an agreement with the National Hockey League over the release of players for the Games, something it had not been able to do four years ago when the Olympics were held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That means China’s first-round opponents — the U.S., Canada and even Germany — are likely to be loaded with some of the game’s best talent.
Concerns about China’s performances are linked to a Chinese team that competes in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. The team, Kunlun Red Star, is usually based in Beijing but relocated to a city close to Moscow during the coronavirus pandemic in order to play in the league’s eastern division.
Things have not gone well. The team, with a roster stocked with many of the same players expected to represent China at the Olympics, sits at the bottom of the standings, having won only five of the 22 games it has played so far this season. It has a goal differential of minus-33, having scored the fewest goals (48) in its division while, perhaps more troublingly, allowing more (81) than any other squad in the 24-team K.H.L.
As they weigh dropping China’s team, the I.I.H.F. officials meeting in Zurich next week also will discuss the possibility of arranging a series of exhibition games for the Chinese team that could serve as a final effort to raise its performance level before the Games. But even that might be too late to make a measurable difference.
Days after he was elected last month, the hockey federation’s new president, Luc Tardif of Canada, told reporters that China’s men’s team possessed an “insufficient sporting standard” and that a “Plan B” for the Olympics was needed.
“Watching a team being beaten, 15-0, is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” Tardif told Agence France-Presse.
Tardif has suggested a team higher in the world rankings — currently Norway, at No. 11 — could be selected instead. China is currently 32nd in the world, one place above Australia. (China’s women’s team also qualified for the Olympics as the host nation, but Tardif said the competitive concerns were related only to the men’s squad.)
China’s plans to improve its hockey team have been hobbled by the pandemic. The effort to fill the Kunlun Red Star club with national team hopefuls was just one part of a strategy that also included sending players on training camps across North America and Europe. Those plans were derailed because of worldwide travel restrictions, including those that have effectively closed China’s borders to outsiders.
Hockey officials have faced similar concerns about the quality of a host nation in the past. In 2006, Italy, the first host to be awarded automatic qualification to the Olympic tournament, finished 11th of 12 teams. In 2018, South Korea was quickly eliminated after being outscored by 14-1 in pool play. South Korea is currently 13 places above China in the world rankings.
The ice hockey federation has been in discussion with China for several years about the quality of its team, and some officials had suggested the country take advantage of dual nationality rules that have allowed players born elsewhere — typically the United States or Canada — to adopt a different nationality internationally, a practice common in sports like basketball and soccer.
China, though, has strict nationality rules and does not recognize dual citizenship, making sporting switches harder than they would be in many countries. Before they can compete for China, athletes born abroad are required to give up their previous nationalities and even undertake education in the values of the Communist Party. The process can take several years to complete.
China has not confirmed its roster for the Olympics but has for years been trawling the world for players of Chinese descent who might improve the team. At least three Canadian-born players — Zach Yuen, Brandon Yip and Brayden Jaw — have played for Kunlun Red Star. Yip is the only one of the three with experience in the N.H.L.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, a chance to play in the Olympics,” Yip, now 36, said in 2019. “This was always a goal of mine when I was growing up. I always hoped that my hockey would help me get my education paid for, that I could turn pro and play in the N.H.L. I did that and thought it would be cool to play at an Olympics. Now, hopefully, I’ll have that chance.”
Those dreams, that long wait, could be dashed next week if the federation decides to take China out of the firing line.