For the Games, Xi commanded a snow sports fever. Will it last?

Follow our latest coverage of the 2022 Winter Olympics . BEIJING — In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where temperatures are sw...


Follow our latest coverage of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

BEIJING — In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where temperatures are sweltering for much of the year, children are ditching their flip-flops for skis and hurtling down indoor slopes.

To the west, high on the Tibetan plateau, Qinghai province has become an unlikely center for curling, the traditional Scottish sport known as ‘ice kettle’ in Chinese.

In Liaoning province, in the northeast of the country, a group of retired men gather every day in winter to don hockey helmets and pads and compete on an outdoor ice rink.

Such scenes, once rare, are becoming more common as the ruling Communist Party launches an ambitious campaign to transform China – much of which has never seen a single natural snowflake – into a global power of winter sports.

The campaign was launched in 2015 when Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged that the country, which had just won the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, would train 300 million ice sports enthusiasts. and snow at Games time. Mr Xi has made sporting achievement a key pillar of his hallmark vision of a “Chinese dream”, a nationalist promise of prosperity and rejuvenation for the country.

In a country where Mr. Xi’s words are often taken as gospel, many could have predicted what was to come: Almost overnight, brands, investors, local governments and the public rushed to react. Ski resorts and skating rinks have multiplied throughout the country. Elementary and middle schools rushed to create winter sports programs. Businesses specializing in snowwear and après-ski entertainment flocked.

“It was like a rocket taking off, everything suddenly changed,” said Carol Zhang, 50, a figure skating coach in Shenzhen, a humid subtropical city in southern China. Ms Zhang said the number of students she teaches has almost tripled since 2015. “So many kids 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 Mr. Xi’s goals had been achieved. The country now has 654 full-size ice rinks, 803 ski resorts and 346 million people who have “practiced winter sports or related activities at least once”, the official news agency said.

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

Still, there is no doubt that the campaign had an impact. Ski resorts in China had more than 20 million ski days in the 2018-19 season, according to a recent industry report. A skier day is equivalent to a purchased and used lift ticket. That’s double the number in 2014 and about a third of the number of ski days in the United States during the same period. China aims to build a $157 billion snow sports market by 2025, almost as much as the global sports market is worth in 2020.

In resort towns near Beijing, cars fitted with Thule ski racks have started to appear in parking lots. An après-ski culture with Chinese characteristics is emerging, which often includes hot springs, hot pot and karaoke.

The enthusiasm for winter sports is not limited to skiing. Interest in snowboarding, hockey, figure skating and curling exploded.

When 41-year-old Jing Gang returned to his hometown of Tianjin from Finland in 2007, he was dismayed to find there were only two small rinks and he barely understood hockey, sport he had grown to love while studying abroad.

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

Today, a little over a decade later, Tianjin has three major ice hockey rinks and a comprehensive youth league comprising some 20 teams. Mr. Jing, who now manages one of these rinks, said the sport was gaining popularity in cities across China.

Shan Zhaojian, a Chinese ski historian, drew a parallel between Mr. Xi’s push and a similar effort led by Mao Zedong, who believed that mass participation in physical activity was necessary for a healthy working class.

“To build a strong nation, you must at least 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, the traditions of skiing and skating go back several generations. China also won gold medals in speed skating and figure skating.

But officials, real estate giants and international brands wanting to grow the market faced challenges, not the least of which was the lack of natural snowfall in much of China and the relative dearth of infrastructure. sports and public transport to the ski resorts.

In the capital, Beijing, the government has invested heavily in water-intensive snowmaking machines and new high-speed rail lines. Now residents can weave seamlessly between downtown and the multi-billion dollar ski resorts and powder-coated mountains that lie on its outskirts.

In the hottest southern region of the country, the solution was to build ski resorts indoors. The Guangzhou Sunac Snow World, the second largest indoor ski resort in the world, has four artificial snow runs that span four soccer fields. It is part of a huge complex that also includes a water world, a theme park and several hotels.

Yet some sports remain beyond the reach of the masses. Lift tickets can cost up to $100, while a complete set of hockey equipment can cost a buyer up to $4,000 – a fortune in a country where the median disposable income per capita is slightly greater than $4,700.

Cost is only a potential deterrent; many Chinese also see winter sports as too dangerous, an impression that is not always wrong.

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

Fear of falling is what prompted Bran Yang, 26, an education consultant in Beijing, to take his first snowboard lessons on an artificial “dry” slope (think a giant treadmill going down without snow). videos of snowboarders he had seen on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, but also advertisements in China featuring Eileen Gu, the Chinese-American ski star.

Mr. Yang said he hoped to move onto the Rabbit Slopes soon to test his new skills on real snow for the first time. But would he wear an ass turtle?

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

Mr. Yang’s willingness to keep trying makes him an outlier. Only a fraction of beginner Chinese skiers try the sport.

Officials and companies hope young people will be more engaged. More than 2,000 schools across 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 primarily groomed by the state, but some wealthy parents are increasingly paying more for the training and outfitting of private clubs, seeing the experience in part as a resume booster for college applications. university abroad.

It is not known whether the enthusiasm for winter sports will continue after the Games. Already, some ice rinks have fallen into disrepair and smaller ski resorts have closed. But experts say such consolidation is to be expected.

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

“Encourage them, don’t thoughtlessly push them,” Mr. Jing recently wrote in a Publish aimed at other Chinese hockey parents. “Our primary goal as hockey parents should be to instill a passion and love for the game in your children.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: For the Games, Xi commanded a snow sports fever. Will it last?
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