— Published 14 March 2022

At the Beijing Games, China broke through the ceiling

The curtain came down on the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games on Sunday 13 March. The flame was lit on Friday 4 March and extinguished at the Bird’s Nest in the Chinese capital during a closing ceremony attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Paralympic Games began against the backdrop of the conflict in Ukraine, with the absence of the Russian and Belarusian delegations, and ended in an atmosphere still dominated by the geopolitical situation.

In his opening speech, the President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Andrew Parsons, made a vibrant appeal for peace. On Sunday evening, the Brazilian did not use quite the same words, but his message did not deviate from his pacifist line. The Brazilian described the Paralympic athletes as a “ray of hope” and “champions of peace”.

But, like ten days earlier at the opening, his speech was partially censored by Chinese television. CCTV, the public channel of a Chinese state that is a strong ally of Russia, unashamedly erased Andrew Parsons’ two phrases, “beacon of hope” and “champions of peace”, despite the IPC president’s caution in not directly mentioning the war in Ukraine.

For the Chinese, the success of the Paralympics is unmistakable. As with the Olympics, their health bubble remained airtight, despite a surge in cases of COVID in the country. More importantly, their athletes broke through the ceiling of even the most optimistic performance expectations.

In ten days of competition, the Chinese delegation won 61 medals, more than double the number of medals won by Ukraine (29), which was ranked second in the table of nations. The Chinese won eighteen titles. Stunning.

On the Paralympic scale, however, China has always been undefeated. The country first participated in the winter event in Salt Lake City in 2002. But it had to wait until the PyeongChang Games in 2018 to win its first gold medal, on the curling ice.

At the Beijing Olympics, two weeks earlier, China’s growth spurt (3rd with 15 medals, 9 of which were gold) had surprised, but not really overwhelmed. At the Paralympic Games, it surprised everyone, like the triple win in men’s snowboard cross, UL category (upper limbs), or the podium success of Zhang Mengqiu, five times medalist in alpine skiing.

The miracle? Work, say the Chinese. The Italian coach of the Chinese Alpine Ski Team, Dario Capelli, who was recruited five years ago, explains: “For 11 months, these athletes worked tirelessly, without giving themselves a break. When I arrived in 2017, I realised that most of them were beginners. We started from scratch. But the work accomplished was colossal. They put in a lot of work.”

Money did the rest. According to the Chinese media, the sports authorities spent lavishly to catch up. The preparation for the Beijing Games was unparalleled in the still small history of the Chinese Paralympic movement. As with the Olympic disciplines, China recruited foreign coaches (a Russian coach, Nikolai Sharshukov, was brought in to take charge of the hockey team). It has multiplied the number of training courses around the world, placing its athletes in ideal conditions, free of material and financial constraints.

At the same time, China set up a vast national detection plan. Only one year after winning the right to host the 2022 Winter Games, a circuit of Paralympic competitions was created from scratch to boost the practice and find the best hopefuls.

Another reason for the Chinese delegation’s historic performance was the fact that the competition was made easier by the exclusion of Russia and Belarus. At the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games, Russian athletes competed under a neutral banner, but won 24 medals, including eight gold. They were second in the nations’ ranking. The Belarusians, on the other hand, had reached the podium 12 times, including four times on the highest step.

Their absence freed up places, particularly in cross-country skiing and biathlon. The Chinese took advantage of this. Andrew Parsons himself admitted that the exclusion of the two countries had “undoubtedly affected the results.