Bin Yao was the driving force behind the Chinese pairs powerhouse for more than 30 years. In the final decade of his career, he coached three separate teams — at the same time — to World and Olympic glory, firmly placing China on the international skating map. His retirement following the 2017 World Championships marked the end of a brilliant era in Chinese skating history.
At age 27, shortly after the 1984 Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yao took over a non-existent Chinese skating program and devoted his life to developing champions. His commitment earned China its reputation as one of the strongest pairs nations in the world.
Yao, initially a singles skater, added pairs to his repertoire in 1968. In late 1979 — a decade later — he was teamed up with Luan Bo. Four months into their partnership the duo headed to Dortmund, Germany, the first Chinese team to compete at a World Championships.
“All our elements were so bad,” Yao recalled with a laugh. “When we practiced at the competition I saw other skaters doing throws, jumps, and lifts. I was like, ‘Oh, not good. I said I did not want to do the competition. We did not know any of the lifts or twists. I did not know how to properly hold my partner. But the team leader said, ‘you must do the competition. You are Chinese!’”
With limited access to any form of foreign media, Bo and Yao had learned the elements by studying still photographs of other teams.
The duo placed last in their international debut, a result that was repeated at the 1981 and 1982 Worlds and at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games. Each time they competed, their performances were met with derision from the partisan audiences. “All the people in the arena laughed at our performances,” Yao recalled.
Bo and Yao retired in 1984. He returned to his native city of Harbin and began coaching.
In 1986, he was appointed head coach of the national skating program in Beijing. “I started to study and learned how to practice pairs skating,” Yao said. “We had no videos to watch, just pictures in books. The only time I could watch other pairs to learn was at competitions. The Canadians, the Russians and the Americans all had different styles. They were all so different. This is how I learned lifts, spirals and throw jumps.”
While the world may have laughed at Bo and Yao in the 1980s, two decades later it was a very different story. In 1992, Yao paired Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao and a year later, Qing Pang and Jian Tong. Shen and Zhao claimed the inaugural Four Continents title in 1999 and a month later captured a silver medal at the World Championships — China’s first global success.
Their victory at 2002 Worlds shook up the skating establishment and when they followed that up with second World crown in Washington, D.C., the following year, it signaled a revolution was taking place in pairs skating, shifting the emphasis away from the domination of the Russian teams.
The World Championships returned to Dortmund in 2004. Twenty-four years after Bo and Yao’s humiliating experience in that city, Yao proudly stood at the boards as two of his pairs teams took their places on the podium. Shen and Zhao captured the silver medal and the third team in his stable, Dan Zhang and Hao Zhang, claimed the bronze.
Since 2001, Yao’s pairs teams have claimed an impressive five Olympic medals (one gold, two silver, two bronze), six World, 14 Four Continents, and seven Grand Prix Final titles; seven World Junior and six Junior Grand Prix Final crowns.
He credits his success to his passion for the sport. “Coaching was my life, my whole life. It is my love. It was very satisfying. World and Olympic gold medals are not important to me. What is important is that the skater must have a good spirit, a good soul — and good technique.”
(Originally published in the IFS October 2017 issue)
ZHANG HAO HANGS UP HIS SKATES