28 AUG 2011 General News Daegu, Korea

Discus champion Li Yanfeng’s German Connection

Li Yanfeng of China wins the women's Discus Throw final (Getty Images)Li Yanfeng of China wins the women's Discus Throw final (Getty Images) © Copyright

You may be World champion, but you are still a nobody without your accreditation card as Li Yanfeng discovered when she came off the Daegu track after clinching discus gold with a second round throw of 66.52m.


All athletes, officials and journalists have a photo card that hangs permanently around the neck to guarantee entry to facilities. Without it, everywhere is barred. High or low, you practically become a non-person without it.


Li Yanfeng was making her way from group to group of excited Chinese journalists in the mixed zone, a huge smile of contentment on her face. She then swiftly disappeared into the changing rooms only to return just as quickly with a a panic-stricken look on her face to ask someone to get hold of her fellow finalist, Jian Tan.


Somehow, Yanfeng’s accreditation had ended up in Tan’s bag as they went out into the stadium at the start of the competition and in her excitement Yanfeng had forgotten to retrieve it.


There are worse things that can happen to an athlete. As she was panicking, behind her on a television monitor, Usain Bolt was kissing his gold medal chances goodbye by false starting.


There was no such faltering for China’s first World champion in the Discus Throw. She took the lead in the first round, consolidated in the second and backed that up with four more clean throws between the 63m and 65-metre mark, the only medallist to have a clean card.


Li Yanfeng credits German coach, Karl-Heinz Steinmetz, with her improvement. Steinmetz is a legendary coach who advised among many others, Lars Riedel, one of the greatest discus throwers of all time with his five World titles. “I am very happy to have a German coach,” she enthused. “He is one of the world’s most famous discus coaches.”


When asked how they communicated, Li Yanfeng produced a stock holiday German phrase, but admitted they mostly communicated through an interpreter, and more importantly through the common language of sport. “We understand each other with gestures and by me looking at the expression on his face,” she said.


But a coach is only one element in the jigsaw puzzle of success. She also credits foreign competition for helping her improve. This season she has competed four times outside China, mostly, it must be said, in Germany where in the month of June she established a personal best of 67.98m to top his year’s rankings and move straight into the favourite slot for the World title.


The one exception to the German dates this summer was a third place in Rome’s Golden Gala where she was beaten by the minor medallists in Daegu, Germany’s Nadine Mueller (silver here) and Yarelis Barrios, the Cuban who had to settle for bronze in Korea.


At 32, Li Yanfeng is getting long in the tooth for a discus thrower and was originally considering retirement after next year’s Olympics, “but now I am not so sure,” she says, happy to have won but equally clearly taken aback that she has triumphed on the world stage.


“It was my dream to win gold at a major championships. At the beginning of my career, of course I dreamt of winning gold but it was not realistic. Then as my results improved, the dream suddenly became more realistic.”


Her biggest successes to date were to be Asian Games champion last year as well as a ninth and seventh places in the Olympic Games of 2004 and 2008.


Sandwiched between those two Olympics came serious injury to her hand in 2005 that might have ended her career: “I thought about giving up, but officials and my family urged me to continue and I decided to make a comeback after all the help I received. So I continued, but I must admit it was slow going and I did not do much training at all for some time.”


After a gap of two years in her results between 2005 and 2007, she finished that latter year on 62.24m and the comeback was under way. Slowly but surely, she started to claw her way back and in 2009 she had improved her lifetime best to 66.40m, a distance she was to improve on this year.


“I think it is an important lesson that age is no barrier,” she said. “How old you are is not so important.”


Steinmetz seems to specialise in mature champions. Riedel was still winning world titles at the age of 34 and Joergen Schult, another Steinmetz protégé, was 39 when he led the field at the start of the final round in Seville 1999 before finally collecting silver.


Li Yanfeng was born in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. Bordering Russia and Mongolia, the area is famous for its ice festivals and there was an element of ice-cool temperament about the champion.


Each of her throws was executed well, the shortest hitting the turf at 63.83m. But going into the lead so early can bring its own concerns. Was Li Yanfeng not afraid she might be overtaken?


“Yes, I felt a little worried about the others because they were so good. So I could not let my attention wander at all, but maintained my concentration on the competition always,” she said.


Michael Butcher for the IAAF