Sports

With indoor ski resorts and curling schools, China lifts Xi’s sports dream


In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, which has sweltering temperatures for much of the year, children are ditching their flip-flops for skis and hitting the indoor slopes.

Out west, high up on the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai province has become an unlikely center for curling, the traditional Scottish sport known as “ice kettle” in Chinese.

Over in the northeastern province of Liaoning, a group of retired men gather every day in the winter to strap on helmets and hockey pads and face off on an outdoor ice rink.

Such scenes, once rare, are growing more common as the ruling Communist Party charges ahead with an ambitious campaign to transform China — large parts of which have never seen a single flake of natural snow — into a global winter sporting power.

The campaign was started in 2015 when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, pledged that the country, which had just won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, would groom 300 million ice and snow sports enthusiasts by the time of the Games. Xi has made achieving sporting success a key pillar of his signature vision of a “Chinese dream,” a nationalistic promise of prosperity and rejuvenation for the country.

A snowboarder on a run at a ski slope in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province in January. China is expecting to see a boom in winter sports after the Olympics end. | AFP-JIJI
A snowboarder on a run at a ski slope in Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province in January. China is expecting to see a boom in winter sports after the Olympics end. | AFP-JIJI

In a country where Xi’s words are often taken as gospel, many could have predicted what came next: almost overnight, brands, investors, local governments and the public raced to respond. Ski resorts and ice rinks mushroomed around the country. Elementary and middle schools rushed to create winter sports programs. Companies specializing in snow apparel and après-ski entertainment flooded in.

“It was like a rocket taking off, suddenly everything changed,” said Carol Zhang, 50, a figure skating coach in Shenzhen, a humid, subtropical city in China’s south. Zhang said the number of students she instructs has nearly tripled since 2015. “So many children want to do winter sports now,” she added.

Just weeks before the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Chinese state media triumphantly proclaimed that Xi’s targets had been met. The country now has 654 full-sized ice rinks, 803 ski resorts and 346 million people who have “taken part in winter sports or related activities at least once,” the official news agency said.

Officials have said the number of people was calculated using a random sampling method. Some analysts have expressed skepticism about the figures, pointing to the vague definition of sports participants.

Still, there is little doubt that the campaign has made an impact. Ski resorts in China had more than 20 million skier days in the 2018-19 season, according to a recent industry report. A skier day is the equivalent of one lift ticket that is bought and used. That’s double the number in 2014 and about one-third the number of skier days in the United States during the same time. China is aiming to build a $157 billion snow sports market by 2025 — nearly as much as the global sports market was worth in 2020.

At resorts near Beijing, cars with Thule ski racks have begun appearing in parking lots. An après-ski culture with Chinese characteristics is emerging, one that often features hot springs, hot pot and karaoke.

The craze for winter sports is not limited to skiing. Interest in snowboarding, hockey, figure skating and curling has ballooned.

When Jing Gang, 41, moved back to his hometown, Tianjin, from Finland in 2007, he was dismayed to find that there were only two small ice rinks and almost no understanding of hockey, the sport he had grown to love while studying abroad.

“I used to carry the stick around and people would stop me and ask, ‘Are you going fishing?’” Jing recalled. Others, he said, “thought it was a combat sport and very violent.”

A group of retired men gather every day in the winter to strap on helmets and hockey pads and face off on an outdoor ice rink in the northeastern province of Liaoning. | AFP-JIJI
A group of retired men gather every day in the winter to strap on helmets and hockey pads and face off on an outdoor ice rink in the northeastern province of Liaoning. | AFP-JIJI

Now, just over a decade later, Tianjin has three big ice hockey rinks and a full youth league comprising around 20 teams. Jing, who now manages one of those rinks, said the sport was gaining popularity in cities across China.

Shan Zhaojian, a Chinese ski historian, drew a parallel between 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.

“To build up a strong nation, you need at the very minimum to have a strong body,” Shan said of Xi’s thinking.

China was not starting entirely from scratch. In the northeast and in the far west, skiing and skating traditions stretch back generations. China has also won gold medals in speedskating and figure skating.

But officials, real estate giants and international brands wanting to develop the market faced challenges, least of which were a lack of natural snowfall in much of China and the relative dearth of sports infrastructure and public transportation to ski resorts.

In the capital, Beijing, the government invested heavily in water-intensive snow-making machinery and new high-speed rail lines. Now, residents can zip seamlessly between the city’s center and the multibillion-dollar ski resorts and the powder-blanketed mountains that lie on its fringes.

In the country’s hotter southern region, the solution was to build ski resorts indoors. The Guangzhou Sunac Snow World, the world’s second-largest indoor ski resort, features four artificial snow runs that stretch four football fields in length. It is part of a massive complex that also includes a water world, a theme park and several hotels.

Yet some sports remain out of reach for the masses. Ski lift tickets can cost upward of $100, while a full set of hockey gear can set a buyer back as much as $4,000 — a fortune in a country where the median per capita disposable income is just over $4,700.

Young snowboarders at a ski slope in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province in February. China is aiming to build a $157 billion snow sports market by 2025. | AFP-JIJI
Young snowboarders at a ski slope in Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province in February. China is aiming to build a $157 billion snow sports market by 2025. | AFP-JIJI

The cost is just one potential deterrent; many Chinese also regard winter sports as too dangerous, an impression that is not always wrong.

In a country with a shortage of qualified instructors, injuries are inevitable. More than 80% of China’s 13 million skiers are beginners. Many novices wear stuffed animals strapped around their bottoms – mostly turtles, but other cartoonish creatures, too. These help to cushion falls and to alert others on the mountain to keep their distance.

The fear of falling is what led Bran Yang, 26, an education consultant in Beijing, to take his first snowboarding lessons on an artificial “dry” slope (think a giant downward-sloping treadmill with no snow.) He had been inspired by the videos of snowboarders he had seen on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and also the advertisements in China featuring Eileen Gu, the Chinese American star skier.

Yang said he was hoping to graduate to the bunny slopes soon to test his new skills on real snow for the first time. But would he wear a butt turtle?

“Definitely; I don’t want to get hurt,” Yang said. “Plus I think it’s kind of cute.”

Yang’s willingness to keep trying makes him an outlier. Only a fraction of first-time Chinese skiers give the sport a second go.

Officials and companies are hoping that the youth will be more committed. More than 2,000 schools around China now offer skating or skiing programs. As of 2020, 11 schools in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, had curling programs.

Young athletes were once mostly groomed by the state, but some wealthy parents are increasingly paying for private club training and equipment, seeing the experience in part as a resume booster for overseas college applications.

It is unclear if the enthusiasm for winter sports will continue after the Games. Already, some ice rinks have fallen into disrepair and smaller ski resorts have closed down. But experts say such consolidation is to be expected.

Promoting the spirit of sports is one of the main goals of Jing, the ice rink manager in Tianjin, who also writes about hockey on his blog, “Hockey Dad.”

“Cheer them on, don’t urge them on without thinking,” Jing recently wrote in a post aimed at other Chinese hockey parents. “Our main goal as hockey parents should be to infuse your children with the passion and the love to play.”

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