Asia-Pacific

Winter Olympics: How China's sports culture is changing ahead of Beijing 2022

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As athletes compete in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, China has one eye on staging the Games in four years' time.

The Chinese government is pouring billions of dollars into building a winter sports culture from scratch, spending big on transforming rural towns outside of Beijing into skiing hubs ahead of the 2022 Olympics.

On the slopes of China's Thaiwoo ski resort, Wang Yun Nuo, 10, is learning how to ski.

Her family drove four hours north from Beijing to enrol her in a children's winter sports camp.

"My friends and I love skiing. I'm already in the intermediate level," Wang said.

Wang is part of the first generation in China to grow up with skiing.

Until recently, winter sports in China were seen as foreign and unaffordable, but thanks to the country's growing middle class and excitement in the lead-up to Beijing's 2022 Winter Olympics, more are taking to the slopes.

It's a trend encouraged by China’s government. President Xi Jinping has pledged to get more than 300 million people on skis and skates in time for the Games.

“I think it’s hopeful that we can reach 300 million, especially since it’s our leader’s project," said Zhao Yang, a manager of Thaiwoo resort’s training department.

"Modern families want their kids to enjoy more outdoor activities.” 

The resort in Hebei’s Chongli district is one of the newly-developed winter sports facilities which will play host to the Olympics in four years.

Today the location is filled with young and first-time skiers, but the mountain was once home to a tiny farming village.

Before winter tourism came to the district, it was among the poorest in China, with most locals leaving to work in Beijing and other major cities.

Liu Juan, a local business owner and photographer, said the transformation sparked by China's successful Olympic bid, have been dramatic.

"Before, Chongli was a small poverty-stricken county," Ms Liu said.

"Through ski tourism the local employment problem was solved. A lot of the people who had left to work in Beijing returned."

Visitors to the district have increased by 260 per cent over the past three years, and almost A$20 billion worth of investment has been poured into Chongli’s snow and ice tourism. 

But there are worries the development is unsustainable. Olympic preparations continue, as decorations and signs celebrate the forthcoming Games. But Chongli’s main avenue, which is filled with ski apparel and equipment stores, is far from busy.

Ms Liu owns a cafe in the main street and says this winter has been quieter than the last.

"Maybe some clients are choosing to go to Japan and other countries. Plus it hasn't snowed much in Chongli this winter."

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Chongli supports seven ski resorts, but all rely on artificial snow, churned out by machines at night. Overall standards still lag far behind winter sports facilities in Japan and Europe.

Bennie Wu, a consultant from Carving Ski, said some businesses may struggle to survive once the Olympic hype was over.

"There are situations where investors are keen to invest in ice and snow sports, because the government is very enthusiastic," Mr Wu said.

"There are many people blindly pouring money into it, and some projects are bound to fail. But at the end of the day, it is all determined by the market."

So far demand is high, with Western teachers making up for a shortage of experienced local instructors at Chongli's ski resorts.

But despite a nationwide push to embrace winter sports, China’s low medal count at this year’s Pyeongchang games showed the country's industry still had a long way to go.

But Zhao Yang dismissed the Olympic "pressure".

“We're not emphasising the need to become a strong winter sports country," he said.

"Ultimately we just want our kids to participate more in outdoor sports for the sake of their health.”

But fledgling skier Wang Yun Nuo has a different take.

She hoped to one day compete in the Olympics herself, and had one piece of advice for her sporting compatriots: "More practice! They need more practice to win gold!"

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