Saturday, 2 September 2017

Yao Bin: A Blast From Last


Yao Bin was born on August 15, 1957 in the city of Harbin, which is in the Heilongjiang province in northeastern China. Coached by Li Yaoming, a former skater who survived forced 'thought-remolding' and forced labour at a prison camp in Chalianhe in the late sixties, he became a member of the Harbin figure skating team in 1970 at the age of thirteen. To say training conditions weren't ideal was an understatement. China had few educated coaches, little funding, no off-ice training, only had ice five month a year of ice and few rinks. These issues, coupled with poor equipment and skate sharpening techniques, really meant that everything was working against Bin from the start.


Bin trained on the frozen field of Red Star Stadium and in the bitter cold of the frozen Black River in Heihe, on the northern Chinese border with Siberia. At the age of twenty in 1979, Li Yaoming hand-picked him and twelve year old Luan Bo to be China's first international pair team. Their coach had only ever seen pairs skating performed live once - at the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa - and the team's early attempts at skating in tandem were anything but successful. Once, while practicing a throw both partners took bad falls at the same time. The team practiced lifts with Luan Bo being picked up off a rinkside table in a helmet and pads. Without access to video footage, Bin studied pictures of North American and European skaters and tried to recreate the elements in the pictures on the ice. It was an unconventional start in pairs skating to say the very least.


In 1980, the team travelled to the World Championships in Dortmund as the first Chinese pair to compete internationally. With no funding to send their coach, they arrived alone and were too intimidated to even skate on their first practice. Never having skated in an indoor rink of international competition size before, only used half the ice surface. Not even in the same league with the other pairs, they were laughed at by their competitors and the West German audience. In a 2005 interview with the Russian Olympic Committee, Irina Rodnina recalled, "I remember the debut of the Chinese pairs in the world championship of the 80th year. Frankly, I very much laughed."

The following year, Harbin got its first rink and perhaps as a result of the disastrous debut in Dortmund, Chinese officials allowed skaters to borrow videotapes from the Soviet Union for study. Bin memorized every move. With more favourable training conditions, the team ramped up their training efforts. However, they remained in last place at the 1981 and 1982 World Championships.
By 1983, Bin and Bo began using Western costumes and music and upping the technical ante of their programs, even including side-by-side double jumps and a throw triple Salchow in their free skating program. A bronze medal win at a Winter Universiade competition in Sofia, Bulgaria justified their efforts.


By the time of the 1984 Winter Olympics, Bin was twenty six. High hopes of moving up from last place in Sarajevo were dashed with a disastrous short program. Bo and Bin again finished dead last of the fifteen pairs competing. He retired and became a coach for the Harbin team. Two years later, he was China's national figure skating coach. In August 1987, he graduated from night school at the Harbin Normal University Sports College with a degree in Physical Culture. A versatile coach who excelled at everything from music to costume design, he took advantage of opportunities to study Soviet skaters in the Urals district. His coaching philosophy was later founded on a passion for building a uniquely Chinese skating program. Fuelled by constant reminders of his own skating days, he became fiercely determined to prove China's ability to develop its skaters without Western influence.


In 1996, he was moved to Beijing and separated from wife and son. In a television feature aired during the Vancouver Olympics, he sadly shared, "I was not even there when my son was born. That is why my son's name is Yau Yuan which means 'far away' in Chinese." Since 1998, Bin has been the director of China's national figure skating committee. His students have included Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, Dan and Hao Zhang, Peng Cheng and Hao Zhang and countless others. Almost single-handedly, he has put Chinese pairs skating on the map. If there's one thing we should glean from Yao Bin's story, it is that history is not always doomed to repeat itself.

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