Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Chinese 24 Karat Olympic Machine and Igor Grinko

New York Times writer Juliet Macur documents her visit with the Chinese National Rowing Team and their coach, Igor Grinko, in today's New York Times. Three things about the article struck me as remarkable. First - that the Chinese Government underwrote a $10 million dollar rowing facility and sponsors 1200 rowing athletes. The support of the US government is downright stingy in comparison. Olympic athletes here in the US receive only a few thousand dollars in support. The Chinese, like many European and Asian nations, cover living expenses, food, travel, and training costs. Former US Olympic coach, Hartmut Buschbacher, also coaching in China, was quoted as saying "If you are surprised at how good the Chinese have gotten, then I think you should come here and watch them train and see this place... if you think this is not going to lead to performance, then I'm sorry, you are stupid." I loved this quote - classic Hartmut Buschbacher. To the point. And blunt.

I had the chance to work with Hartmut while he was the Olympic Team coach for the women's sweep program - and I thought he had a great non-nonsense attitude. He also designed personal programs for athletes - instead of generic workout program for all athletes, which I thought was brilliant.

Second and more importantly, despite the allegations of doping (addressed below) - it also struck me that Igor Grinko is thriving in China - a system much like Russia, where Igor's scullers (usually the quad) won multiple gold world championships and Olympic medals. China has an enormous population, so it was only a matter of time before really good athletes, particularly from Inner Mongolia, would emerge. In addition, Igor has all the tools at his fingertips - doctors, labs, physical therapists, new equipment - and, more importantly, everyone will do what he dictates. Furthermore, unlike what happens here in the US, Igor can develop athletes - rather than focus on a shorter term strategy of selection. Sadly, the US has forgone the concept of athlete development for the past 15 years - which means that really good potential athletes are not identified or developed - which is partly responsible for the meager medal showings year after year by the US Team. At this point in time, only the men's and women's eights are supported with consistent and rigorous coaching - but even then, there is very little development. On top of this, there are precious few trials events for the Olympic Games, so unless you happen to be invited to a camp, there is little incentive for unidentified athletes to continue training after college. So it comes as no surprise that Igor can and will develop really fast and powerful crews in the sort of environment that China has in place.

Third - Mike Teti, the US men's Olympic coach, has gone on the record as suggesting that doping is responsible for the rapid improvement of the Chinese teams, who were largely absent from the international scene 10 years ago. Grinko, in the Times, responds "no secrets, no mysteries going on here... they're just doing this like the East Germans did in the 1970s and 1980s." I laughed when I read this quote - because although the East Germans had government support and a rigorous training program, it was common knowledge that the East Germans doped heavily and consistently, not just in the 1970s and 1980s, but beyond. Teti knows this as well, given that he was a member of several Olympic teams before he started his coaching career.

Nonetheless, having visited China and Inner Mongolia - and seeing how large and athletic many Chinese athletes are - - and having been an assistant coach to the Korean Olympic Development Team - - I saw first-hand how these athletes are developed and trained. They all live together in government apartments - and they train full-time without distraction. So it comes as no surprise that they are fielding very competitive and talented teams. In fact, a link on the New York Times's website (click here for the article) shows clips of the Chinese Team. Their rowing technique is very good - clean and smooth, with very little boat check.

That being said, Igor Grinko was our Olympic sculling coach in 1992. So I have a bit of knowledge about how he coaches and how he interacts with athletes. In fact, in 1991 and 1992, Igor was very frustrated with his American athletes - partly because there was no system or support in place for consistent training - and partly because he had very little control over headstrong American scullers. He also did not understand the mental aspect of American athletes, thinking that the larger athletes would always outperform the smaller athletes. In Russia, rowing is a job. Here in America, it is a passion. Moreover, Grinko's workouts were designed for Russian athletes - meaning that, at least as far as we were concerned, they availed themselves of performance enhancements which, more than anything, helped them to recover quickly. We did not. In fact, while we were training in Colorado at altitude early in 1992, Igor insisted that I do back to back workouts (40 minute erg pieces) at a heart rate of 186 (a beat below my anaerobic threshold, when I would start generating huge amounts of lactic acid). Most of the other women's thresholds were around 140 - 160. After several days of this kind of work, which should have in theory worked, I nearly tanked. In fact, the doctor at the US Olympic Training Center took a blood test. "Get the hell out of here" he said. "You have completely depleted your glycogen stores. It will take you months to recover and I don't know if you'll be able to recover in time for the Games." Igor's workouts, at least then, were brutual for women who were not taking drugs to help them recover from workouts. I also recall training at altitude in St. Moritz when the women were crying on the way to workouts. People were at the limit, both physically and mentally, under Igor's workout program.

Although I am sure Igor is smart enough to have his athletes avoid any performance enhancements which are specifically noted on the International Olympic Committee's banned list - I share this anecdote. In 1992, one of our assistant coaches told us, while we were training in Switzerland prior to the Games, that Igor was trying to get his hands on a new drug that the Italian cyclists were using to rid the body of lactic acid more quickly. That substance was not yet on the banned list because it was so new - and furthermore, one of us on the team found out that an Italian cyclist had died after taking the substance because his heart fibrilated.

To be fair, I never asked Igor myself if this was true - and the drug never materialized as one of the assistant coaches had purportedly placed a call with the US Olympic Committee to confirm that enhancements NOT on the banned list were still banned. And frankly, even if Igor had located and procured that drug - very few of us, being a fairly feisty bunch of independent minded people, would have been insipid enough taken some blue pill or blue drink. In some countries, athletes are told that "vitamins" are in a drink or a pill - and they simply swallow. In the US, especially with scullers who are older and cranky, with no money or glory at stake, we don't.

So after reading the New York Times article, here is what I think. The Chinese athletes are earning their results, particularly because of the money and support of the Chinese government. If the US had a strongly supported development system in place, instead of a catch-as-catch can selection process - we, too, would be more competitive.

However, that being said, I would not be surprised at all if Igor could put his hands on something that was not yet on the banned list. Something to optimize his athletes. Something small and and something blue.


pep said...

Just read the NYT article. Holy...
Beijing is going to be verrry interesting.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the Russian coach referred to doping when he was talking about East Germany -- he meant the support system. It's very difficult to dope nowadays. In China, you can be sent to prison for doping.

Anonymous said...

i think there's got to be something theyre doing, i mean if they can funnel those millions into boathouses what would stop them from searching for currently undetectable drugs?
It seems naive to think theyre not doping

Mary Mazzio said...

Thanks to the contributors to this blog entry. One writer suggests that doping is not happening - and the other writer thinks that doping certainly is happening.

Igor, when referring to the East German athletes, certainly did not intend to refer to East German athletes doping - but it is ironic because it is common knowledge that East Germany's sports medicine support was... advanced. They doped, as did most of the Iron Curtain countries.

The challenge around doping is simple. Everyone is trying to optimize performance. And it is only considered cheating when you go over the limit...

That being said, there is incredible pressure around athletic performance with large sums of money at stake. Whenever there is money, you can almost always uncover illegal substances.

Thanks for your comments everyone!

Anonymous said...

Some friends sent me your article.
I think it's stupid what is you writing there together with Mike Teti.About East Germany I mean system for selection and training, not drugs.For my fourteen years working with US is any athletes can say that I offer some drugs to him or her.You just laying.When we trained in Switzerland I called just asked if they can offer something for recovery very natural.Shame on you Mary.I quarantee my Chinese rowers all clean and just training better.

Anonymous said...

"They doped, as did most of the Iron Curtain countries." --- I like what you put out here, which is typical among americans I know.
Don't get me wrong, yes, they did, as most sports fans believe so as well. The problem here is how about some of the non-Iron Curtain countries, particularly the USA.

Excuse me for my ignorance.
I didn't know that Marion Jones is a Russian lady before. And I didn't know that Justin Gatlin (2004 Athens 100-m champ) trained in an Iron Curtain country in the past. I also didn't know that the 10'49" record for woman's 100 meter dash was drug-enhanced by an athele from the Iron Curtain countries, who died suddenly at young age due to, drug use, oh sorry, heart disease.

Don't you think it's utterly odd that athletes from a pool of 4-million African Americans have dominated sprints in the past a few Olympics whereas those from a pool of 1-billion plus African people in Africa could not even achieve a fraction of that? In the meantime, those from the 1-billion pool are doing very well in mid-long distance track events, whereas those from the 4-million pool are pretty much invisible? Isn't it true that drug companies in the USA are the best in the world, which means drugs made by them are a few years ahead of all others including anti-doping agencies worldwide? which in turn means .... a lot. I don't understand why those baseballers like Roger Clemens took performance-enhancement drugs when compete in non-intense, domestic games and those atheles from the same country who compete internationally and in high-intense sports don't dope. Are American atheles are as honest as " I had no sexual relationship with that woman" ? Or maybe Clemens' performance-enhancement drugs were meant, not for sports, but for sex?

Mary Mazzio said...

Igor - Thank you for your comment. I have posted a new blog entry.

Unknown said...

I believe it is a traditional US reaction to success of others to accuse them of doping. It is clear this is hypocritical. As a former (recent) world champion in rowing it is obvious to me that if you have the depth of athletes as the Chinese do, and you train them well with adequate recovery they will go fast. You don't need to take drugs in rowing to win because there is not the money nor the government support in other nations to fund doping. Think about it: if you are training just as hard, if not harder, rowing technically more proficiently but have more time to recover and cover the 1 percenters you are going to win. The Chinese womens double scull is a classic example. They do not need to take drugs to win; they row with excellent rhythm and are extremely technically skilled. I have coached in the US and it is clear why the US system has not got a chance against the Chinese system.

Mary Mazzio said...


Excellent posting. See my new blog post for Igor's remarks.

Anonymous said...

You write: "The support of the US government is downright stingy in comparison." Although the NY Times did not interview all 1200 paid rowing athletes, those that they did interview sounded rather unhappy about being government workers (aka rowers) even though it was better than farming.

I'd rather my hard earned money was mine to support the teams, interests, churches, whatever that I choose, instead of being taxed and having an inefficient government choose where my money goes. I don't like paying taxes. Do you?

Anonymous said...

Rowing is one of those sports where resources and a strong support system can pay dividends in a relatively short time. In Britain, the national governing body recently conducted a nationwide search for 'athletes' with no rowing experience that could molded into Olympic rowers in time for the 2012 London games.

Igor's most successful crew in the US was the 96 Men's 4x (silver). Those guys rowed together for years--unusual in the US system--worked hard, and had great erg scores. Yet their outstanding result was subjected to the same kind of irresponsible doping innuendo that is found in this blog. According to one of those scullers, the turning point for them wasn't a magic pill, rather, it occurred when one of Igor's former Soviet rowers came over to train with them. This guy apparently spoke very good English, and was able to plainly communicate some of the finer technical points that Igor had struggled to convey as he attempted to master English.

The Chinese invested wisely in getting Hartmut and Igor. So perhaps the Chinese were also wise enough to spend some of their $10m on an interpreter--the Chinese athletes in the video accompanying the NYT article row extremely well. We can debate alleged doping and state sponsored athletic programs all day, but I hope everyone would agree that good rowing definitely makes boats go fast.

Anonymous said...

I understand the USOC may have issued the Chinese an apology for Teti's comments in the NY Times article?

Some of Teti's success has come from Igor's development of athletes. Perhaps a bit of jealousy?

montanagal said...

Then the question still remains, how do we improve the American system? Start earlier?

Because US athletes aren't likely to dope, and we can't do anything about the other countries, just make our own system better. It's worked well thus far, it's just coming under challenge.

I was always struck that the imported coaches always seemed to have trouble understanding the American mindset. However, their training methods were superior.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. I just wanted to quantify the comment on the lack of financial support for US Rowing athletes.

Although I would agree it is pale in comparison to those reported in China or the GBR lottery-funding model. The USOC funding model has shifted from programs based funding to that of direct athlete support. This past years athlete ['07 & '08] get 9-12k base, performance kickers for national selection regatta performances and then operation gold funding. An athlete on the medal stand this year will get between 20 and 35 thousand dollars. One should note that additionally they get free health insurance and are eligible for corporate job "training job" sponsorships such as Home Depot [now in jeopardy]. None of this is something to make a career out of rowing, but a far cry from the "few thousand dollars" of the early ‘90s, which I’m assuming, you were referring to in your post.

Here are some references:

Link on Athlete Support

Article on Home Depot OJOP

Mary Mazzio said...

These are really interesting comments and perspectives. The most recent post by ANONYMOUS mentioned that athlete support has increased to $9-$12K, which might differ from the 1990s. However, in the 1990s, we did have direct athlete support, with a housing subsidy and a small stipend, but it was certainly not enough to cover normal living expenses. The funny thing was that this was awarded to athletes based on results from the prior year - and I recall athletes who had not made the team the prior year jockeying for those payments - as there were very few of those subsidies available.

Even though there is some support available, it really is limited to a very narrow pool of athletes. Another writer, Alastair, writes that the US system has no chance against the Chinese system, irrespective of doping allegations. I have to agree with Alastair, especially since I saw first-hand how supported athletes in other countries live and train. The US system is completely haphazard in terms of actual development of athletes - - the US system is based on a shorter term strategy of selection, and as a result athletes are really not developed in any cohesive way.

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. More to come on this topic later.

Also - Igor was courageous enough to post his response to this blog, which is outlined in my most recent posting.


Anonymous said...

We should hold judgment unless there is proof of wrongdoing. As one of the Anonymous contributors pointed out, there are plenty of American athletes who were recently caught for doping in baseball, football, cycling, track, etc. As an amateur rower in high school and college, albeit not nearly as advanced as many people that posted on this board, I found that advances in rowing came fairly quickly compared to other coordination sports that required high natural talent on top of many years of training (usually lifelong from early childhood). I am not suggesting that rowing is easy, but rather, that rapid advancements through "clean" training is well within reach for a program with unlimited resources. I think it's refreshing to see a non-European succeeding in rowing and welcome the globalization of this fantastic sport.

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