Native of country has handle on language, logistics
BEIJING – James Li is embarrassed by his recent celebrity.
It’s one thing as a coach to talk about his famous athlete, Bernard Lagat.
But quite another to talk about himself with the New York Times, to star in a three-part documentary video on ESPN.com, to have reporters seek out the University of Arizona track associate head coach at McKale Center rather than men’s basketball coach Lute Olson.
“It’s been so much bigger in China even,” Li said last month in Tucson. “My role, my story, this person. It has been very largely positive. I think my parents are very proud of that.”
The 47-year-old Li is a child of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong solidified his power as Communist Party chairman in the 1960s and ’70s, resulting in political and social violence. His parents still live in Chengdu, close to the epicenter of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake May 12 that killed more than 69,000.
Li left China in 1985 to become a graduate assistant coach under John Chaplin at Washington State. After four years as head coach at Minnesota State, Mankato, he returned to Washington State in 1994 and helped to recruit Lagat from Kenya in 1996. That began a loyal affiliation that continued when Li took up new UA head coach Fred Harvey on an offer to join the Wildcats staff in 2002.
Lagat also moved to Tucson, his training base for the past six years, during which he became a U.S. citizen, won a second Olympic 1,500-meter medal (representing Kenya) and doubled as 1,500 and 5,000 champion at the 2007 World Championships. He’ll try to win titles in both events at the Beijing Olympics, where Li is serving as U.S. men’s track manager.
“I said it’s my calling and I’m really meant for this job,” Li said. “Not only that I’m a coach of an Olympic level athlete, I have intimate knowledge of the Games. I’m, you can say, somewhat of a technical expert in this sport. That’s the professional side of it.
“On the other side, I am fluent in Chinese, and I have a lot of connections in China. China in particular and probably Asia in general, it’s so much who you know. You’ve got to be able to speak to the right person and get to the right person, and they’ve got to trust you. At least in terms of track and field, I don’t think anyone in this country has more and better connections.”
Li ran the 800 at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education and was among the country’s top middle distance runners in the early 1980s. He was coaching at the Sichuan Sports Institute in Chengdu when he first crossed paths with Chaplin, now USA Track men’s chairman.
In the first part of the ESPN.com video, shot during one of Li’s trips to Beijing this year, he greets his college roommate in a tunnel at the Bird’s Nest, where Olympic track will be held.
“The guy slept above me (in a bunk bed) for four years,” Li said. “My friends are now the ones pretty much in charge of all aspects of sports in China. Every time I turn around, I know somebody in BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for Olympic Games), from the director of competitions to officials on the floor of the track officiating.”
USA track is training in Dalian, 288 miles from Beijing. In April, after violent protests in Tibet over Chinese rule and protests associated with the Olympic torch run, Chinese officials informed Li of heightened security impacting the planned training camp location.
Within days, Li was in Dalian to help coordinate hotel and track changes.
“We’re no longer in the middle of the city,” Li said. “They moved us to the outskirts. It’s a lot more secure location.
“The Chinese really feel a threat about someone trying to sabotage the Games and what better target than a big American delegation.”
Li became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and is the father of two sons, including Allen Li, a former Ironwood Ridge High School basketball player who was a Tucson Citizen student-athlete runner-up in May.
James Li is measured when discussing China’s human rights record or even everyday life. He operates with the benefit of perspective that most traveling to the Olympics lack.
He remembers when the first seven-story building was built in Chengdu, where now a 50-story building is nothing special. When there was no fashion in clothing. When his mother was branded as a counter-revolutionary. When no one made even private jokes about government leaders.
Put off by the military put-down of protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Li opted to remain in the United States rather than return to China.
He believes on a small scale that some political incident is “bound to happen” during the Olympics. As a coach, though, he believes such statements are better expressed elsewhere.
“It defeats the purpose of the Olympic Games,” he said. “That’s war. That’s when they settle those disputes, I guess. But we’ve found a stage to say we’re going to put all those other things aside and focus on our basic humanity. That’s a wonderful thing.
“Just imagine if we don’t have this forum. The world would be a lot worse place.”
> When: Friday-Aug. 24
> TV: NBC, various cable
> Tucson ties: Check out the Citizen’s preview Thursday, with capsules on more than 30 athletes, staff.