MIke Rowbottom ©insidethegames

So what the Chinese media questioner wanted to know of Su Bingtian, the morning after the night before, when he had become the first Asian to contest a men’s 100m final at the World Championships, was this:

“Did you sleep well last night?”

And the next question:

“Why did you keep your hair so long?”

For the record, no, Su Bingtian did not sleep well after an evening of high excitement in the Bird’s Nest stadium when he equalled his national record of 9.99sec in the semi-final and earned a place in the final – where he finished eighth – by a judgement involving thousandths of a second.

“Although I was tired, I was too excited,” Su replied. “I kept waking up all through the night.”

And the hair?

“First I thought that if I cut my hair maybe I will feel more energised. But I decided that if I have my long hair maybe it will bring me some good luck. So I didn’t cut it before competition.”

100m finalist Bingtian Su, with hair uncut, a new standard bearer for Chinese athletics ©Getty Images
100m finalist Bingtian Su, with hair uncut, a new standard bearer for Chinese athletics ©Getty Images

It is not the answers to the questions that are particularly important for Chinese sport. It is the fact that such questions are being asked. Because these are the questions asked of star sportsmen, or star performers in general in society.

Such was the level of attention for Su’s achievements, you wondered how the Chinese might react if he were to earn a medal.

But the level of interest is a vital sign for the sport in this country, and since Sunday night’s 100m exploits there have been a succession of other points of focus.

Seven years ago when the Beijing Olympics were held in this stadium, the nation’s paramount sporting icon, 110m hurdler Liu Xiang, left a capacity crowd in stunned silence, confusion and in many cases tears as he walked away from the re-run of his false-started first round heat having suffered a recurrence of chronic inflammation of his right Achilles tendon – a problem so severe that it also kept him out of the following year’s World Championships.

Without the reigning world and Olympic champion, China’s hopes of a track and field gold didn’t exist. They ended with just two athletics medals, both bronze, for Zhan Chunxiu in the women’s marathon and Zhang Wenxiu in the women’s hammer.

Four years later, at the London Olympics, the picture was brighter as China secured six medals – a gold and three bronzes in the walks, and silver and bronze in the women’s field events.

Four years on in Rio, however, the Chinese look ready to increase that tally – and in a far wider spread of events, as the evidence of this week’s activities in and around the Bird’s Nest have shown.

By the morning of Day 7 here the host nation had six medals – three in the walks, where Liu Hong, world record holder, did her duty with gold in the 20km event, a silver in the women’s shot put from Lijiao Gong, bronze in the women’s hammer throw from Zhang Wenxiu, only 29 but making her eighth World Championship appearance, and bronze in the men’s long jump from 18-year-old Jianan Wang. Meanwhile Su Bingtian and his sprint colleagues were preparing themselves for the weekend’s relay exertions, and the effervescent high jumper Guowei Zhang, winner of this season’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Oslo, sailed through to Sunday’s final with flourishing medal prospects.

And on Saturday night it all got unimaginably brighter for the home nation as their men's sprint relay team finished third in the final behind Jamaica and the United States, to serious excitement which re-doubled with the announcement that bronze had turned to silver following the US being disqualified for a faulty final baton exchange.

Usain Bolt paid tribute to the ‘young heroes’ of the Chinese 4x100m sprint relay team who earned unexpected silver behind Jamaica after the United States were disqualified for a faulty final baton changeover.

“It is a wonderful feeling to come back to the stadium of our Olympic glory in 2008,” Bolt told the post-event press conference. “Rivalries like Bolt vs Gatlin in individual events or Jamaica vs USA in relays are very important for global athletics. That is what calls attention to our sport and benefits it.

“But tonight we have other heroes. Team China was great at the home stadium. They are still so young and they can improve more. Well done guys!"

Last leg runner Peimeng Zhang, the 28-year-old who held the Chinese record at 10.00 until Su ran 9.99 this season, said: “The most important thing I learned in USA training camp was how to keep calm and be part of a team even if we are serious rivals at home performing in the same events. We’re happy to get silver medals. We had a lot of pressure before the race because Chinese people expected a lot from us. But on the other hand they have been incredibly supportive to us."    

Jianan Wang, 18-year-old bronze medallist in a long jump competition that energised the Bird's Nest, has the look of a future champion ©Getty Images
Jianan Wang, 18-year-old bronze medallist in a long jump competition that energised the Bird's Nest, has the look of a future champion ©Getty Images

Wang, who turned 19 two days after his final, is already one of the rising forces in Chinese athletics. Listening to this slight young man describe afterwards how he had started his career as a decathlete, you wondered if you had misheard. And indeed, the lack of heft required to effectively compete in events such as the shot soon (very soon, actually, as he only did one decathlon) persuaded him to follow the decathlon element which most naturally appealed and soon resulted in him taking the world junior title.

Long jump night in the Bird’s Nest was a vibrant affair given China’s success in getting all three of its jumpers into the final – Wang, 21-year-old Asian champion Xinglong Gao, and 26-year-old local lad Jinzhe Li. Truly, as each red shirted figure received rhythmic applause on each of their attempts, this was a glimpse of a richer and more exciting future for Chinese athletics. All of which was approvingly observed by Liu Xiang as he works with the home TV broadcaster.

The three home jumpers are co-coached by Zhao Lei and the American who guided Mike Powell to the world record of 8.95m, Randy Hartington.

The presence here of this venerated US coach is one of the key elements of a new attitude within Chinese athletics.

As China’s team leader Feng Shuyong, vice-chairman of the Chinese Athletic Association, explained on the day after the final, with Su Bingtian and his coach Yuan Gouqiang at his side, the host nation is starting to benefit from a more open attitude to international competition and information exchange.

Feng did not refer specifically to the days of the early 1990s, when the extraordinary feats of China’s female middle distance and endurance runners created a series of world records, some of which, such as Wang Junxia’s marks of 8:06.11 for the 3000m and 29:31.78 for the 10,000m, still stand, with Qu Yunxia’s 1500m mark being eclipsed only last month by Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia.

But in everything he did say about ethics, and openness, the comparison was implicit.

Wang Yunxia and Qu Yunxia were among a group of athletes trained by the mysterious and controversial coach Ma Junren and nicknamed the Ma Family Army as they took the track by storm. Many questioned Junren’s methods.

In 1993, at the World Cup Marathon in San Sebastian – where Wang Junxia was in China’s victorious team – I was among media observers who questioned Junren about the dramatic achievements of his charges.

Image title
Controversial and mysterious coach Ma Junren, pictured with his victorious athletes at the 1993 World Marathon Cup. The new era of Chinese athletics is a world away in terms of openness ©Getty Images

He insisted that the results came from high mileage at altitude – his runners were said to run a marathon every day - and from employing traditional Chinese medicine. He grew angry at suggestions of doping infractions, and cut the interview short. Seven years later, after six of his athletes were among 27 competitors dropped from China’s team for the Sydney Olympics, he was dropped as a coach from the Chinese Olympic team. He and his entire team of athletes then disappeared for several months, fuelling further suspicions.

That image of Chinese sport has lingered. But Feng, and others of similar mind in a country now gearing up for the 2022 Winter Games, is fostering fundamental changes based, essentially, on openness and co-operation rather than the secrecy and suspicion of the past.

Su Bingtian and his coach, for instance, have wintered at the IMG Academy in Florida, learning new techniques, talking about new trends in the sport, gaining expertise.

Conversely, Feng explained, the CAA now employ the expertise of foreign coaches across seven disciplines.

“We have a principle of going out and consulting other coaches,” said Feng. “It is not that we feel Chinese coaches are not good enough, but because we want to go and learn from the latest developments in the international field.

“We are working with coaches in seven areas – race walking, marathon, long jump, pole vault, shot put, discus and the sprints.

“Plus we also take people to overseas competitions. Through this process we will make more progress. Facilities such as the IMG Academy are quite advanced. And if our coaches also go overseas with our athletes then it becomes the result of a joint effort. Every coach can be provided with more information about training.

Coaches can tell you all about athletes like Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin. We can make use of that information for Chinese athletes.”

As Feng extolled the virtues of the young – long-haired - man at his side as a role model and inspiration for a new generation of Chinese athletes, his choice of words was revealing.

“I think this is an important breakthrough for Su and also for Chinese athletes in general. All the athletes and the coaches have the same dream, and he has realised that dream. I think he has done a great thing.

“We have to keep making an effort, with Su as our leader. He is a very good performer who knows how to take good care of himself and he has a strong sense of ethics.

“I hope that for future generations of Chinese athletes, Su can set an example.

“In the past, Chinese people believed they can’t run as fast as white athletes, or black athletes. Many people had this concept. So when they came to a World Championships they think that they will lose.

“I believe that the example of performances such as Su Bingtian’s will make others believe we will have better performances in the future.”

Listening to Su appraising the effectiveness of his involvement with new expertise and experience was instructive. This experience is being replicated throughout much of the team.

Su explained that he had twice visited the IMG Academy in Florida. “The first time we took part in their relay meeting,” he said. “The second time we stayed to do some training there from last November to March.

“While I was there I changed some of my techniques so that I could have the best start. But my technique is still not mature enough. For me the semi-final race here was quite tight. I didn’t feel so good between 50 and 70 metres. It was not as fluent as my run in Eugene."

Asked how his athlete could get faster, Yuan replied: “He showed by running 9.99 again in his semi-final that he is now able to conquer 10 seconds. When he ran that time in Eugene the wind conditions were better. So in future I hope he can make more progress.

"Looking at him running in the rounds here, I think he can make some improvements to his race between 30-50 metres.”

Su added: “I agree with my coach. That part of the race is very important now I can maintain my speed from 50m on.

“I am going to stick to my new training programme – I think if I do, in the future I will have better performances.

“There is no special training – it is just a case that I went abroad and saw some fresh methods which I can adopt.”

Asked about the pressure of expectation his recent successes have engendered, Su – who turned 26 on August 29 – offered the easy response of an experienced competitor.

“I have got to adapt to the pressure gradually,” he said. “If I run 9.99 today, maybe people will expect me to run 9.98 tomorrow and I will not do that as required. But I will do my best. I think that is enough. I cannot make a breakthrough every day!”

Su exemplifies the changing competitive psyche of Chinese athletes.

“When I go to the United States for training or competition I get to know the foreign competitors,” he said. “If I communicate with people I will not be afraid of them. If they are strangers, then I might feel scared. Maybe I can make some of these competitors be afraid of us as Asian athletes.”

That is a big call within Su’s events. But in the high jump? The long jump? Such aspirations look spot on. Guowei Zhang and Jianan Wang have the look of future champions.

For all the moments of high excitement here this week, however, and the declarations of aspiration – many of which are spontaneously applauded by members of the Chinese media as they attend the press conferences – Feng , who worked for 20 years himself as a long jump coach, remains calm and pragmatic.

“In the past Chinese track and field has lagged behind. But we have never been satisfied to lag behind. We are starting to improve our confidence and make more of our ability.

“All season you have seen the progress our athletes are making. But of course we have to be aware that we still have a gap between us and some other countries. We have to be realistic.

“It will not be a smooth progress in future, but our athletes can show more of their potential. We have to keep making an effort.”