China will now host the 2022 Winter Olympics. But what does that mean for Beijing’s controversial plans to build a new ski resort in the shape of a giant panda?
The “For the Games, Xi Ordered Up a Snow Sports Fever. Will it Last?” is an article about how China’s President Xi Jinping has ordered for more investment in winter sports.
Keep up to date with our coverage of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
BEIJING (Xinhua) — Children in Guangzhou, China’s southernmost city, are swapping their flip flops for skis and visiting the indoor slopes during the hotter months of the year.
Qinghai Province, high on the Tibetan Plateau in the west, has become an odd hub for curling, a classic Scottish sport known in Chinese as “ice kettle.”
Every day in the winter, a group of elderly men assemble in the northern province of Liaoning to put on helmets and hockey pads and compete on an outdoor ice rink.
Such sights, which were formerly uncommon, are becoming increasingly prevalent as China’s governing Communist Party pursues an ambitious effort to turn the country, which has never seen a single flake of natural snow, into a worldwide winter sports power.
The initiative began in 2015, when China’s president, Xi Jinping, promised that by the time the 2022 Winter Olympics were held, the nation will have groomed 300 million ice and snow sports fans. Mr. Xi has made athletic achievement a cornerstone of his hallmark idea of a “Chinese dream,” a patriotic promise of wealth and rejuvenation for China.
Many might have foreseen what happened next in a nation where Mr. Xi’s words are frequently accepted as gospel: practically instantly, brands, investors, local governments, and the general people hurried to react. Around the nation, ski resorts and ice rinks proliferated. Winter sports programs were quickly established in elementary and intermediate schools. Snow clothing and après-ski entertainment businesses flocked in droves.
Carol Zhang, 50, a figure skating instructor in Shenzhen, a humid, subtropical city in China’s south, described it as “like a rocket going off,” with “everything changing.” Since 2015, the number of pupils Ms. Zhang tutors has almost quadrupled, according to her. “Now, more than ever, so many youngsters want to participate in winter sports,” she continued.
Mr. Xi’s ambitions had been fulfilled only weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to Chinese official media. According to the official news agency, the nation currently boasts 654 full-size ice rinks, 803 ski resorts, and 346 million people who have “taken part in winter sports or associated activities at least once.”
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The number of participants was estimated using a random sample procedure, according to officials. Some observers have questioned the data, citing the ambiguous categorization of sports players.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the campaign had an effect. According to a recent industry study, China’s ski resorts enjoyed more than 20 million skier days in the 2018-19 season. A skier day is the same as one lift ticket that has been purchased and utilized. That’s more than twice the number from 2014, and approximately a third of the amount of skier days in the US over the same period. By 2025, China hopes to have a $157 billion winter sports industry, which is approximately the same size as the global sports market in 2020.
Cars with Thule ski racks have started to emerge in parking lots near Beijing slopes. An après-ski culture with Chinese influences is developing, with hot springs, hot pot, and karaoke often included.
Skiing isn’t the only winter activity that’s popular. Snowboarding, hockey, figure skating, and curling have all seen a surge in popularity.
When Jing Gang, 41, returned to Tianjin from Finland in 2007, he was disappointed to see just two tiny ice rinks and little knowledge of hockey, the sport he had come to love while studying abroad.
“When I used to go about with the stick, people would inquire, ‘Are you going fishing?’” Mr. Jing remembered something. Others “felt it was a fighting sport and quite brutal,” he claimed.
9:11 a.m. ET on February 16, 2022
Tianjin now boasts three large ice hockey rinks and a complete youth league with roughly 20 teams, barely over a decade later. Mr. Jing, who now runs one of those rinks, said the sport was gaining traction in Chinese cities.
Mr. Xi’s push is similar to one spearheaded by Mao Zedong, who believed that mass participation in physical activity was necessary for a healthy working class. Shan Zhaojian, a Chinese ski historian, drew a parallel between Mr. Xi’s push and a similar effort spearheaded by Mao Zedong, who believed that mass participation in physical activity was necessary for a healthy working class.
Mr. Shan said of Mr. Xi’s approach, “At the absolute least, you need a strong body to develop a strong country.”
China was not beginning from the ground up. Traditions of skiing and skating may be traced back generations in the northeast and far west. In speedskating and figure skating, China has also won gold medals.
Officials, real estate moguls, and multinational brands seeking to expand the industry, however, encountered several obstacles, not least of which was a lack of natural snowfall in parts of China, as well as a scarcity of sports infrastructure and public transit to ski slopes.
The government of China’s capital, Beijing, has made significant investments in water-intensive snow-making gear as well as new high-speed train lines. Residents may now travel with ease between the city’s core and the multibillion-dollar ski resorts and powder-covered mountains on its outskirts.
The answer in the country’s hotter southern portion was to construct indoor ski resorts. Guangzhou Sunac Snow World, the world’s second-largest indoor ski resort, with four artificial snow slopes that extend the length of four football fields. It’s part of a huge complex that also contains a water park, a theme park, and a few hotels.
Nonetheless, certain sports remain out of reach for the general public. Ski lift tickets may cost up to $100, and a complete set of hockey equipment can cost up to $4,000 – a fortune in a nation where the typical per capita disposable income is little over $4,700.
The expense is just one possible impediment; many Chinese people believe that winter activities are too risky, which is not necessarily true.
In a nation where skilled teachers are in limited supply, accidents are unavoidable. More than 80% of China’s 13 million skiers are new to the sport. Many newcomers have plush animals around their buttocks, especially turtles but sometimes other comical critters. These serve as a safety net for falls and serve as a warning to those on the mountain to maintain their distance.
Bran Yang, a 26-year-old Beijing education consultant, learned to snowboard on an artificial “dry” slope since he was afraid of falling (think a giant downward-sloping treadmill with no snow.) He was inspired by snowboarding films he saw on Douyin, China’s equivalent of TikTok, as well as advertising in China showing Chinese American star skier Eileen Gu.
Mr. Yang expressed his desire to progress to the bunny slopes soon so he could put his new talents to the test on real snow for the first time. Would he, however, put on a butt turtle?
Mr. Yang said, “Definitely; I don’t want to be harmed.” “Plus, it’s sort of sweet,” she adds.
Mr. Yang is an oddity because he is ready to keep trying. Only a small percentage of first-time Chinese skiers return to the sport.
Officials and businesses are looking for stronger commitment from the kids. Skating and skiing programs are currently available in over 2,000 schools throughout China. Curling was offered at 11 schools in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, as of 2020.
Young athletes were formerly mostly developed by the government, but rich parents are increasingly paying for private club training and equipment, viewing the experience as a résumé boost for abroad college applications.
It’s uncertain if the excitement for winter sports will last after the Olympics. Some ice rinks have already closed, and smaller ski resorts have shuttered as well. Experts, on the other hand, suggest that such consolidation is to be anticipated.
Mr. Jing, the ice rink manager in Tianjin, also writes about hockey on his blog, “Hockey Dad,” and one of his primary aims is to promote the spirit of sports.
Mr. Jing recently stated in a post addressed at fellow Chinese hockey parents, “Cheer them on, don’t press them on without thinking.” “As hockey parents, our first objective should be to instill in our children a passion for the game and a desire to participate.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed to this story with her reporting.