China’s hockey team wins right to play in Olympics—despite concerns it’s too bad to compete

December 8, 2021, 8:34 AM UTC

Hockey’s global governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), said on Tuesday that it will allow China’s men’s ice hockey team to compete at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games despite concerns that Team China isn’t good enough to play against Olympic-caliber opponents.

As host of the Winter Games that start in February, China had automatically qualified to compete in the sport. But in the past few months, the IIHF evaluated whether the Kunlun Red Star—the Beijing-based hockey club that plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as a feeder for Team China—had the skills necessary to compete against the best teams in the world.

The federation made its decision on Tuesday after watching the Red Star’s two recent matches in the KHL. The Chinese hockey club lost both games—4–1 and 5–4, respectively—and ranks second-worst in the 24-team league. The federation gave no explanation for its decision.

The federation had kept Team China in limbo—initially granting it the right to play in 2018 before reconsidering several times this year owing to the team’s “insufficient sporting standard.” In September, then–IIHF president Luc Tardif said he feared Team China would get blown out at the Games. “Watching a team being beaten 15–0 isn’t good for anyone—not for China, or for ice hockey,” he said.

China’s Olympics draw means it will face the world’s ice hockey powerhouses Canada, the U.S., or Germany—ranked No. 1, No. 4 and No. 5, respectively—in the first round. China is ranked No. 32 worldwide in men’s ice hockey.

Since winning the Winter Games bid in 2015, China embarked on a huge push to develop ice hockey in the country. In the span of six years, China’s sports authorities and Olympics and ice hockey organizers built 337 new indoor ice rinks, more than doubling the nation’s count, and increased the number of ice hockey players in the country to 9,506, up from 540 in 2010.

But building a national hockey team from the ground up takes decades, so in 2017 China did the next best thing: It built a squad from the top down by recruiting foreign-born players to join the Kunlun Red Star. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association (CIHA), the body in charge of the country’s national program, succeeded in bringing foreign athletes to China. As of Dec. 8, the Red Star’s roster of Olympic hopefuls now consists of nine Chinese players, three Russians, three Americans, and 15 Canadians.

China’s ice hockey insiders weren’t surprised by the IIHF decision. The larger issue, many say, is which of the Kunlun Red Star’s foreign-born players will represent China at the games. To do so, they’ll have to temporarily forfeit their current passports to receive Chinese citizenship since China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. And to qualify for IIHF eligibility rules, foreign athletes need to have played in China for at least two years. But the Beijing-based Red Star relocated to Moscow early last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, further complicating the eligibility process for some players.

Kunlun Red Star head coach Ivano Zanatta said that the club’s recent performance showed that the team is good enough for Olympic play. The games “proved they have the character and the ability, and they have the right to participate in their own Olympics. Definitely not second to a Norway or a Denmark or Latvia. We’re equal to those countries,” said Zanatta, according to the CBC.

But critics say the IIHF decision is setting Team China up for humiliation. Rachel Doerrie, a sports analytics director at Canada’s York University, asked on Twitter yesterday: “What is the purpose of (likely) embarrassing the Chinese players by having them play two of the best hockey nations on earth?”

Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based sports blogger who cohosts the China Sports Insider podcast, responded that the CIHA—not just the IIHF—is to blame for having chronically mismanaged the country’s ice hockey program and national team for years. “They were the ones that lobbied IIHF for a spot and promised [the] Chinese team would be ready by 2022,” he said.

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