Led by a lightning trio, China's sprinters have blazed a new trail this year.
At one point, it was like the punchline to a bad joke.
Not so long ago, the idea of a world-class Chinese sprinter – never mind three of them – was an alien concept in athletics, as absurd as a Kenyan winning a global 400m hurdles title, a Jamaican leading the world in the discus throw or a pair of Americans going 1-2 in a world 3000m steeplechase final.
Every once in a while, though, sport has a habit of upending the established order and re-aligning everything you believed to be true.
For many years, aficionados have flagged China as a sprinting nation on the up, but now it’s fair to say they’ve arrived.
On the men’s side, there’s Su Bingtian, the bullet-man who is currently fourth fastest in the world over 100m this year with his Asian record of 9.91; there’s also Xie Zhenye, who broke the Chinese record in Montreuil last month with 9.97, only to lose it to Su three days later. On the women’s side, there’s Wei Yongli, who broke 11 seconds for the first time last weekend in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which ranks her 11th in the world over 100m.
Throughout the history of the most populated nation on earth (1.384 billion, if you were wondering), there has been the occasional sprinter to break through and mix it with the world’s best, but never this many, and never have they posed such a threat to the Jamaicans, Americans and other superpowers of world sprinting.
But how did they get here?
The Numbers Game
In the 35-year history of the IAAF World Championships, China has won 53 medals, but with the exception of those won by Liu Xiang, none of them came in an event below 1500m.
There is one exception, of course – the silver won by the men’s 4x100m team in 2015, and when we look back at the nation’s rise to sprint stardom, that will likely be remembered as the turning point.
Mo Youxue to Xie Zhenye to Su Bingtian to Zhang Peimang; one lap of the track in 38.01 seconds – a nation inspired, united in celebration.
“Our progress lets more people know that we Chinese can do it in sprinting, and lets many athletes in China feel confident and get strength,” says Su.
It’s a point echoed by Xie.
“I believe that our efforts are meaningful,” he says. “When we climb to new heights, we show our spirits of never give up and we also show that ‘I can’.”
Despite being rivals, Xie and Su are also teammates, who use each other’s breakthroughs as inspiration.
“We have a very good relationship,” says Xie. “We all send our best wishes to each other when we compete and even though we are also opponents, I believe that this relationship as adversaries can help us both go faster.”
Few outside of Chinese athletics knew much about Xie prior to his national record last month, but given his recent results it’s time to get to know the 24-year-old, because he’s likely to stick around for years to come.
Growing up in Shaoxing City in Zhejiang Province, his talent was first spotted by his PE teacher, and Xie had to abandon his dreams of becoming a table-tennis star when he realized he was far more accomplished in athletics.
He typically trains in Beijing, but this year his national federation arranged for a handful of Chinese athletes to train in the Netherlands under coach Rana Reider, who has helped him lower his 100m best from 10.04 to 9.97 and also guided him to a Chinese 200m record of 20.16.
As a student in sports psychology at Zhejiang University, Xie is well-placed to explain the rising tide in Chinese sprinting.
“The reasons are multi-faceted: the rapid development of China’s society and construction of the sports system, a better training environment, and also the athletes are helping move each other forward,” he says.
The more open nature of their current sports system has also helped, as Su notes: “The Chinese team gave us chances to train and study abroad and it’s very useful. I have participated in many foreign big and small competitions, from which I learned and got more knowledge.”
Then there is the coaching, with no shortage of international athletics gurus guiding China’s current generation.
Su is coached by Randy Huntington, who coached Mike Powell to the long jump world record, along with many other world-class athletes down through the years. Prior to that Su was coached by Yuan Guoqiang, who set China’s first national record in the digital timing era at 10.61 back in 1978.
In 2011 Su enjoyed his first big breakthrough, lowering the Chinese record to 10.16 and the following year he became the first Chinese man to reach the 100m semi-finals at the Olympics. In 2015, a few months before his silver success in the relay in Beijing, Su clocked a ground-breaking 9.99 when finishing third in the Eugene Diamond League.
His reaction afterwards?
“I feel so proud to make history, but I am not going to be complacent. I still have a long way to go.”
Ever since, he’s been true to his word, going on to take world indoor silver over 60m in Birmingham this year before scorching up the track this outdoor season, clocking a windy 9.90 in Eugene before his Asian record of 9.91 in Madrid, which he equalled last weekend in Paris.
There’s still several weeks until the Asian Games and IAAF Continental Cup, but Su has already achieved his goals for 2018.
“But my coach said that I can run faster,” he says, “so now I have a new goal.”
Blazing a Trail
For China’s fastest woman, Wei Yongli, running started out as something she did for transport, running 6km to and from school through the mountains near her home in the southwestern Guangxi province.
As a teenager she was selected for a school sports competition by one of her teachers where her talent was spotted. It would be several years before she fully committed to athletics, asking Tian Yumei to coach her in 2009.
Tian had been a world-class sprinter in the 1990s with a best of 11.06 for 100m, and she coached Wei up until this year when Wei joined Xie and other Chinese sprinters in Holland to work under coach Rana Reider.
Before this year the 26-year-old’s PB was 11.24, which she ran in Beijing in 2016, but her 10.99 last weekend catapulted her into new territory.
For Wei, Su and Xie, the final steps to take are to win a world or Olympic medal – individually – in the years to come. It is something that looks increasingly likely for the talented trio.
“For every athlete, the final dream will be linked to the podium,” says Xie. “I am no exception.”
But even if they come up short, their performances are paving the way for the next generation of Chinese talent, igniting hope – just as Liu Xiang did – that youngsters can dare to dream of global sprinting success.
“Our progress lets more people know that we Chinese can do it in sprinting,” says Su. “My aim for the next generation is that they get better and better and are able to get the first three places at the world championships. That's the goal.”
Words: Cathal Dennehy