As the one year to go marker is passed for the staging of the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing in February 2022, it is a good time to assess the status of China’s preparations and explore what it wishes to accomplish. The last 12 months was supposed to be a time period filled with top-level sporting events. Instead, the world of elite sport has been put on hold by Covid-19, nations have closed their borders and cancelled large-scale gatherings. As a result, for only the fourth time in history, the Olympic Games was postponed and Tokyo 2020 became 2021.
China was named host of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games during the IOC Session in Kuala Lumpur in July 2015. That year, the Chinese Government decided, “to promote the sports industry to become a pillar industry of the national economy with high-quality development.’’
Soon after, President Xi Jinping stated: “The Olympic Winter Games are part of our vision of encouraging 300 million to experience winter sports”. Taken literally, this would raise China’s participation rate in winter sports from less than two per cent to 22 per cent. By 2019, the country had built 770 ski resorts and attracted 20.9 million skiers, according to the China White Book, which provides an overview of the sector. However, the latter number includes many one-off beginner day trips. Winter sports infrastructure building included shopping malls such as Guangzhou Sunac Snow World, which received 550,000 skier visits in the first six months of 2019. Even in Xinjiang province, 4,000km from Guangzhou, many towns installed a ski-lift and a snow cannon which provides locals with a snow-sport taster.
As enthusiasm for fitness and sports grows among the Chinese and they get wealthier and pay more attention to health, consumer retail brands have also shown exponential growth. The French outdoor retailer Decathlon now has 315 stores across the country – its biggest market after France. In February 2017, China Daily reported that in China, Decathlon releases more than 3,000 new products every year and sold more than 1.5 million ski-suits that year.
Specialist US snowboard brand, Burton Inc, is seeing similar returns in the country.
‘’In China, we now have stores in Beijing and Shanghai. Those stores are doing numbers equivalent to Santa Monica and New York, which are definitely our leading stores around the world. We saw some incredible numbers during China’s Singles Day, which is the biggest shopping day in the world on November 11, 2020. We did $1.75m (€1.46m) for that shopping day,” said John Lacy, chief executive of Burton in November 2020.
The hope from international winter sports brands was for the creation of a market akin to that of the foreign car brand domination in China from the 1980’s onwards. However, Chinese sports companies were nimble and swiftly able to compete, often by buying foreign brands outright. Anta Sports, a domestic sportswear brand launched in the 1990’s now owns FILA, Salomon, Atomic, Descente and Arc’teryx. With annual revenues of RMB33.93 billion (over €4.3 billion), Anta is the official apparel sponsor of the Games and President Xi wears their signature Arc’teryx parka for his site visits.
The 2020-21 winter season was also the year when China should have hosted multiple Olympic Test Events. At first glance, given the pandemic, it might seem like sport in China is at a standstill, and that the lack of international competitions could hinder the country’s ability to be ready for the Games, but scratch below the surface, and it quickly becomes clear that despite the challenges, China is making significant progress.
Most of the venues have long been constructed. Four stadiums from Beijing 2008 have been refurbished for the Winter Games and the Birds’ Nest will be used for the 2022 Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The nearby Water Cube has been transformed into the Ice Cube, turning a four-lane swimming pool into a curling rink using CO2 as the coolant for refrigeration purposes – a world first.
Kate Caithness, president of World Curling said: “We are proud to have curling in this iconic venue in the prime location for the Games and are looking forward to our World Wheelchair Curling Championships, which has been rescheduled for October 2021 and will act as a final test event prior to the Games.”
It is the venues for outdoor snow and ice disciplines which are perhaps the biggest challenges. The Zhangjiakou cluster of resorts in Hebei province includes Thaiwoo, Wanlong and the Secret Garden Olympic venue. The latter has been operating for five years and all three are regular destinations for locals as well as visiting Japanese skiers who like the early season opening. Access has been much improved from the original 130km/4-hour drive, when in December 2019 a high-speed train link from Beijing North Station to Zhangjiakou was opened, cutting the journey time to under 50 minutes.
Although the cancellation of the FIS World Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Championships scheduled for February 2021 was a blow, the Super pipe at Secret Garden is tried and tested and has hosted FIS World Cup competitions since 2018. Importantly, the Chinese Freestyle team are fully familiar with it, according to former FIS race director and now a technical expert, Joseph Fitzgerald, who is one of a small number of international experts who over the past years have worked hand in hand with the local teams to ensure the right level of preparedness is achieved. He is currently in Beijing for a six week stay, including two weeks quarantine.
Fitzgerald said: “We have watched China Ski Association build an effective system at the elite level across the ski and snowboard disciplines that matter to them. They first focused on Freestyle Aerials since the early 1990’s and then snowboard and ski half-pipe. They’ve built a world class national team over the last 10-15 years with serious investment to ensure the teams can travel, compete and receive specialist strength training and international coaching.
“One of the benefits has been to build a winter culture for these events and now they are a real team supporting each other. We have noticed a genuine desire for knowledge transfer. International experts have shared knowledge, and this has been refined and communicated through a chain of command locally. For FIS disciplines, English language is now widely spoken, and this will facilitate good communication and sharing amongst literally hundreds of technical officials as we approach the Games,” he added.
China has fully focussed on venue construction, conversion and reuse of existing facilities and on creating a transport infrastructure which will leave a legacy. Whilst the adoption of a winter sports culture will take far longer than the seven years lead-time from winning the Winter Olympics bid; the Games themselves and the expected medal success in the skating disciplines; likely free-style snowboard/skiing and aerials and possibly curling will provide fresh impetus. As a result, China’s new Olympic heroes will lead a generation onto the slopes or ice and sporting brands will pursue this significant growth opportunity.
In order to explore the best practices to allow sport entities to maximize their impact in China and bring together winter sports professionals with experience in the market, H&A Media is organising a China Winter Sports Summit online on March 9-10. This will be an opportunity to gain an understanding of the challenges and opportunities for winter sports in China now and post Beijing 2022.