When Beijing was awarded the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, Chinese authorities found themselves with somewhat of an unwanted bonus: host countries are automatically granted a berth in the men’s ice hockey tournament. The glaring issue with that was, despite China being home to almost a full fifth of the Earth’s population, scarcely more than a few thousand of its people had ever played the game before. Lacking enough time to build a world-class team from scratch, China did the next best thing: they bought one.
Officials set to work recruiting foreign hockey talent, placing an emphasis on players with ethnic ties to the country. Eight months after China secured Olympic host status, the Kunlun Red Star was founded. While Asian heritage was unofficially preferred, recruitment expanded to include a broader scope of willing hockey talent. In 2016 the Red Star officially hit the ice as the first Chinese team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), widely regarded as the word’s second most competitive ice hockey league after North America’s National Hockey League (NHL).
Things looked promising for the newly assembled squad, which made it as far as the conference quarterfinals in their very first year. But things did not improve from there. Since their inaugural season, the team has failed to make the KHL playoffs; in the most recent season, the Red Star finished last in their division standings. In late 2021, as the Beijing Olympics drew near, doubts were being raised about whether the Chinese team was indeed competitive enough to participate, including from the governing body of the sport, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
“Watching a team being beaten, 15-0, is not good for anyone, not for China or for ice hockey,” Luc Tardif, president of the IIHF, told Agence France-Presse in September.
If China were to be excluded from its own tournament, it would be a first in Olympic history – an unbearable prospect in a culture where maintaining face is of utmost importance. Those concerns were put to rest in early December, when the IIHF confirmed that the Chinese team, ranked 32nd in the world, would maintain their berth in the 12-team tournament. The chances of it making any difference to the Chinese medal tally are slim to none, but by side-stepping this injury to national pride, China has already found validation for its investment in foreign talent.
On January 27, the Chinese men’s ice hockey team roster was finalized, confirming that the 24 players representing the country would all be players from the Kunlun Red Star. Final count? Eleven Canadian players, nine Chinese, three Americans, and a Russian. While having nine out of 24 players actually originating from China doesn’t seem half bad for a country that had barely heard of ice hockey six years ago, a closer look at the statistics reveals to what extent the national team relies on foreign athletes to remain even remotely competitive.
A common metric in the world of hockey statistics is “points” – the sum of goals and assists accrued by a given player. In the 2020-2021 KHL season, the 24 members of the Chinese Olympic team accumulated a total of 198 points. Of those points, 99.5 percent were racked up by foreigners (the single Chinese point was a goal scored by forward Rudi Ying). Just by looking at the top three players – Spencer Foo, Tyler Wong, and Brandon Yip, all of Canada – you can account for 44 percent of the team’s points.
It’s clear that without its foreign-born players, China would be unable to put forward a team capable of Olympic-level play. It’s worth noting however, that recruiting “heritage players” for participation in the Olympics is not a unique strategy, or even a particularly uncommon one. Talented athletes from traditional Olympic powerhouses like the United States, for example, will often represent the countries of their ancestry if they are unable to make the cut for the American team. South Korea faced an identical dilemma for its 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, when it recruited seven foreigners to play on the South Korean men’s Olympic hockey team. If you consider enlisting athletes from other countries to be inherently unethical, then China is simply sinking to a level that dozens of other countries already occupy.
What makes the Chinese situation unique is that the simple existence of this team actually presents somewhat of a paradox.
Both the Olympic Charter and the IIHF regulations state that athletes competing for a country at the Olympics must be nationals of that country. However, Chinese citizenship laws are notoriously strict, and explicitly do not recognize dual citizens. Being naturalized as a Chinese citizen is exceedingly rare, and usually requires an applicant either to have immediate family with Chinese nationality or to possess permanent residency in Chinese territory, qualifications that a majority of the hockey players in question do not have. Alternatively, foreigners can naturalize for “legitimate reasons,” an exclusive window just wide enough to potentially let some otherwise ineligible athletes through.
In order for the announced Chinese roster to be accurate, one of these facts has to yield. One possibility is that foreign-born players were required to renounce their citizenships and be naturalized as Chinese citizens, for “legitimate reasons.” Alternatively, it is possible that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IIHF have made an exception, permitting non-nationals to compete for China. The last possibility is that China is the one making an exception, granting foreign Olympic athletes some form of dual citizenship to be eligible for the Games. Regardless of what the reality is, athletes and officials alike are remaining tight-lipped about the situation.
The puzzle isn’t restricted to the hockey rink either. The most notable example is teenaged skiing star Eileen Gu, who has become the darling of China’s national team. Born in San Francisco, she is competing for China in Beijing. She has been nicknamed “the Snow Princess” in China, and is the country’s best hope at scoring some gold medals at its own Olympics.
The Olympic Games have always served as proxy for international relations, and the Beijing Olympics are shaping up to be some of the most controversial in recent memory. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among others, have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games in response to human rights abuses in Xinjiang. That means Western athletes on Team China undoubtedly find themselves in an awkward position, representing a country that many of their neighbors at home consider a geopolitical rival. The political sensitivity of their unique situations is surely not lost on them, as they navigate the minefield of Chinese-Western diplomacy while simultaneously striving to further their own careers as they compete on the world’s largest athletic stage. China is likewise wagering a lot by entrusting a troop of foreigners to represent their national interests; a single, misplaced comment from any one of these athletes would make international headlines.
“At the end of the day we’re just trying to further our hockey careers,” says Spencer Foo, the aforementioned point leader for Team China. “We’re here to play hockey, and to try to build up the game of hockey in China. China has a lot of people and if they can build up the sport, it’s great for the game of hockey too.”
“It’s not often you get to represent your heritage,” adds Parker Foo, Spencer’s younger brother and Olympic teammate. “There’s a lot of racism stuff going on right now in professional leagues back home. Obviously we’ve faced our fair share of it and I just think it’s just a cool opportunity to represent being Asian hockey players on the biggest stage.”
As the world turns its watchful eyes to Beijing this February, one thing can be certain: Beijing will be keeping its own watchful eyes on China’s stable of foreign athletes.
Let the Games begin.