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.