As an Olympic trainer and coach for the University of Arizona’s cross-country and track squads, James Li nurtures world-champion distance runners and walk-ons alike.
Those efforts peak this summer for the Chinese-born track guru and Oro Valley resident, tasked to run the U.S. men’s track team’s logistics during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Given Li’s experience, language skills and contacts, the nod represented more of an honor than a surprise. The 2007 Nike Coach of the Year endured a lengthy selection process for the role, beginning with USA Track and Field’s nomination, and culminating in 2006 with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s confirmation.
Now, the head manager racks up frequent-flyer miles to prep for three weeks of controlled intercontinental madness.
“It’s a great thing for me as an ethnic Chinese, and an American now, to make meaningful contributions to the American team and to the games,” Li said. “It’s definitely a good homecoming for me.”
Li will coordinate schedules and activities for 80 coaches and athletes as they descend on Beijing from across the world, within 10 days of opening ceremonies.
It’s serious athletic air traffic control. Already, Li’s flown to China twice during a recent four-week period to set up pre-Olympic camps, solving housing and equipment issues along the way.
“I was warned that I probably will get an average of 3 to 4 hours a day of sleep,” Li said.
Li’s moment arrives at a time when China continues to emerge as an integral player on the world stage. The 2008 Games alone spurred construction of nearly 100 venues and training centers in or near Beijing, plus a doubling of the city’s subway capacity.
“Today’s China, compared to 30 years ago, is really a night-and-day difference,” Li said.
Some of China’s changes are tangible, like the skyscraper forests lining commercial hubs nationwide, or the crop of new stadiums near Olympic Village.
Those skyline edits cause Li to fiddle through maps when he returns to his old stomping grounds in Chengdu, a city deep in central China where paper money was born over 1,000 years ago.
“Nowadays if I go back to my hometown where I grew up, I get lost easily,” Li said. “When I go out, I wouldn’t be more than a mile or two before I get completely lost.”
Other — perhaps more significant — shifts are cultural.
Three decades ago, Li grew up as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution drew to a close, following the Communist Party leader’s 1976 death. For 13 years, civil war loomed. Intellectuals, elders and religious figures were purged while the economy fell into chaos and rural communities starved.
Li’s family escaped much of the turmoil. His father worked as an engineer, his mother in a party-governed sports bureau, which offered Li his first peek into the athletic world. In college, Li ranked among China’s 10 fastest distance runners and won the nation’s collegiate 800-meter title in 1979.
He followed the coaching path with a job at the Sichuan Sports Technique Institute. But when the government’s liberal “open-door policy” allowed many Chinese an unfiltered glimpse of the outside world, an exit beckoned.
In 1985, Li landed stateside to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at Washington State University.
There, Li helped shape the Cougars’ track programs for 13 years, including a stretch under future UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood, who hired Li after he coached WSU’s Bernard Lagat to a bronze medal in 2000 Sydney games’ 1,500-meter event.
Four years later, Li topped that by pushing Lagat to Athens’ silver medal.
“I loved what he did (at Washington State),” Livengood said of the coach he’s known for nearly 20 years. “I’m a big James Li fan. And he’s done a great job for us here, too.”
Though Livengood won’t call it a trend, Li joins the list of Olympic-tested Arizona coaches. Softball coach Mike Candrea led his ladies to 2004’s gold medal, and swim coach Frank Busch served as a women’s assistant during the Athens competition.
“I just think it’s a wonderful tribute and honor for a great coach and a great person,” Livengood said. “It says a lot when our coaches are selected to be among the best of the best.”
Not everything about the upcoming Olympics for Li conjures roses, though.
The naturalized American remains far from thrilled with the flak China has taken over recent troubles in Tibet, voicing particular distaste on interruptions to the 85,000-mile torch relay.
“I don’t agree with using the Olympics as a venue to achieve political goals,” Li said. “The Olympic games are not a place where you settle your disputes.”
For Li, who prefers to go unnoticed, the biggest conflict right now is which media interviews to grant.
He said the “crazy” Chinese media hound him at airport gates — to the point where he’s considered measures of secrecy when returning to his homeland. And last month, while awaiting takeoff on the Beijing tarmac, an award-winning American documentary producer called.
The pitch? A major sports television network wants to chronicle Li’s Olympic experience. The director — who asked to remain unnamed — said the project awaits contractual ink.
“It is pretty amusing to me. To be honest, I lived so anonymous for so long, and I was so happy about it,” Li said.
Li jettisons notoriety at his home’s front door — and every other chance he gets. But the only thing Li appears to regret about his Olympic duties is lost family time with his wife and two sons, while shuttling back-and-forth across the Pacific.
“It’s not like he’s changed now that he gets a lot of press here and in China. He still knows and appreciates where he came from,” said his son Allen, an Ironwood Ridge High School senior.
James missed Allen’s efforts during the Nighthawks’ furious come-from-behind 5A-II state basketball victory to attend a Seattle Pac-10 conference meeting in February.
And as his son prepares for his first scholarship semester at University of Southern California, James must miss the bulk of Allen’s final summer around the house, as well.
“We do handle it really well. It makes us more independent, not having to have someone there to walk us through everything,” Allen said.
Tickets for the games will be a tough score for Allen and his brother, Anthony, so they’ll likely be glued to the tube during track events — even if their father’s not on the field.
For them, it’s just another way to celebrate Dad’s homecoming.
“It’s good when you have a father like that,” Allen said. “It motivates you to work hard and appreciate what you have.”