Beijing 2022: China’s first steps to becoming a winter sports powerhouse

Society & Culture

One week before the torch is lit at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Mark Dreyer reflects on what these Games will mean for China — both its athletes and its now-turbocharged winter sports industry.

Illustration by Alex Santafé

Chen Degen only saw snow for the first time in 2019.

Hailing from Yunnan province in China’s southwest, he was a long-distance runner, competing in the 5,000m and 10,000m for his high school track team. As a police cadet, he also had some idea of how to hold a gun, making him a perfect candidate for the winter pursuit of biathlon, which combines the endurance of cross-country skiing with shooting.

Chen was selected in China’s cross-discipline recruitment program for the Winter Olympics and was sent to Norway in early 2019 for training. Three years later, the shooting side of his game hasn’t quite worked out as planned, but he will line up as one of China’s top cross-country skiing prospects. He won’t win a medal — the 20-year-old has only been training for less than three years, a fraction of what his rivals from Europe and elsewhere have done — but the strides Chen has made in that short period are representative of the progress seen throughout China’s winter sports industry, both at the elite sporting end and within the consumer-facing parts of the sector. That, on some level, represents success for China at these upcoming Games, which begin in seven days.

Once China was awarded the 2022 Olympics seven years ago, the country quickly realized that it wasn’t going to top the medal table, as it did in 2008, and so moved to redefine what “success” would mean. One of the goals is to have athletes competing in every single event at the Games. China won’t quite manage that — there are a handful of areas where no Chinese athlete has qualified or been selected — but in the vast majority of disciplines, there will be at least one Chinese athlete lining up over the next few weeks, which marks a dramatic change from previous Winter Olympic teams from China. This year’s Chinese delegation will include more than 170 athletes, more than double the number that traveled to South Korea in 2018.

The hope is that four, eight, or even 12 years from now, China could turn into a proper Winter Olympics powerhouse, with one China-based foreign coach I spoke to citing it as a real possibility that China could become a top-five Winter Olympics nation.

Despite the different messaging around these Olympics, with Chinese President Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 this week saying he “doesn’t care” how many gold medals China wins, the country’s sporting authorities have still used every trick in the book to make sure that they are as competitive as possible. In the sliding sports — bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton — China hopes to make significant progress based on home track advantage, which is hugely important in this sport. It’s estimated that sliders from other countries will have somewhere between 40 and 45 training runs in total on the Yanqing track prior to the main competition; Chinese sliders will have had at least 10 times that number. That doesn’t guarantee a medal, of course, but it gives China every chance of producing its best possible result. In a sport which, based on the relatively small number of elite athletes, is not too competitive globally, that might just make the difference.

That’s one example of where China has used its financial muscle to try to bolster its competitive edge, despite the external messaging that medals don’t matter. Another is in ski jumping, where China has built a high-tech wind tunnel in Laiyuan, Hebei, used exclusively for training its budding ski jumpers — only three of whom will represent China next month.

One European coach said he knows of only one other similar wind tunnel in the world, adding that it’s incredibly impressive and a great benefit for China – but noting that it will only produce marginal gains. “In my country,” he told me, “we prefer to spend our money in other ways.” The cost of this wind tunnel is not exactly at the level of a state secret but has still been kept under wraps. Rest assured, though, that no expense has been spared as China looks for every possible edge.

All of this might suggest that nothing has really changed from China’s tried and tested formula, with the country still as competitive as ever in wanting to win as many medals as possible. The biggest change, perhaps, has come away from the sporting arena.

In 2008, the atmosphere was festive. It’s cliché to say that those Summer Games represented China’s “coming out party” on the world stage. But it’s true — it did feel like a party. Beijing residents, both foreign and locals alike, would line the outdoor bars cheering Yáo Míng 姚明 as he took the court for China or watching any number of other events.

Everyone, it seemed, had Olympic fever, although it helped, of course, that China had more than 50 golden moments to celebrate. In contrast, these Winter Games are very, very different in feel for a number of reasons: Winter Olympics are naturally a smaller occasion; China is not historically a winter sports power; the novelty of hosting an Olympics no longer exists here; the colder season means the extended street party atmosphere is unlikely to be repeated; and the looming specter of COVID-19 has dampened any remaining optimism.

But it’s more than that.

Despite what promises to be an immaculate performance on TV screens around the world, the global conversation on China has changed dramatically since 2008. Back then, the sense of forward progress was powerful, with a narrative describing China’s relentless march.

In the subsequent 14 years, China has made an incredible amount of further progress — it just hasn’t been in the direction the rest of the world hoped, or indeed expected. From a Chinese perspective, though, why would, or should, the country follow the somewhat discredited Western model? China sees itself as resuming its rightful place at the top of the global pecking order. Leaders lead, goes the argument, they don’t follow.

But the conversation outside of these borders has centered on boycotts and human rights and all the sorts of sensitive topics that the Chinese government finds so irritating, even though almost none of that reaches the ears of the captive domestic audience.

The politics of these Games are unavoidable no matter how much China or the IOC tells us that they should be kept separate from a sporting occasion. But there’s also a business aspect to consider, too. Since China won the bid to host the Games in 2015, the winter sports industry has seen the sort of turbocharged growth that China has previously produced in other sectors.

Rapidly built infrastructure is a well-known strength in these parts, so ski resorts and ice rinks were never likely to be a problem. But what is perhaps more surprising is that the people have followed the government’s lead. Ski resorts have been packed, with many flocking around the beginner slopes, testament to wave after wave of Chinese trying out a sport for the first time. Similarly, I’ve lost count of the number of Chinese friends and colleagues whose children have taken up ice hockey as their new favorite pastime.

Will all this organically translate into sporting success at the elite level? Not necessarily. But it will provide a much bigger base from which China’s tried-and-tested sporting system can select. More importantly to the country as a whole, it’s vindication that the sports industry can act as a key economic driver of domestic consumption, as Chinese people spend their hard-earned money within China’s borders.

One of the benefits to the economy during these COVID times is that consumers have had to look for local options. Ski resorts all over Europe and North America had depended on an annual influx of Chinese tourists, with many offering Mandarin-speaking guides. But due to ongoing travel restrictions, China’s upper-middle class, known for its spending power overseas, has been forced to explore new parts of China — but still spending accordingly.

As a result, both the short- and medium-term trajectory of winter sports in China looks promising; the growth thus far has been impressive, but it feels like there is still much more room to grow. That, for some, will be a significant legacy of these Olympic Games. But others will likely remember them for the more political connotations that are surely contained within.