As a country that has historically put a very low emphasis on the importance of physical activity, China may seem a hard sell for endurance sports. Where games like football or basketball can be played in a purely casual, social manner, running or cycling are more about the benefits derived from pushing one’s physical limits. However, this has not put off some of China’s most powerful investors.
Whilst there are numerous Chinese professional cycling teams, none have been included in cycling’s premier division. This duck could soon be broken following the purchase of UCI WorldTour team Lampre-Merida by Chinese fund TJ Sport Consultation.
The historically Italian team has held a WorldTour license for 26 years. However, following TJ Sport’s acquisition the team have sought a new license linked to China. This has lead to some issues. It is yet to be granted by the UCI, reportedly due to concerns of the funding structure.
This would be a massive blow for both the team and cycling in China. A Chinese team competing in some of the world’s most iconic races would be a huge selling point for prospective fans.
Regardless of the outcome, it remains an exciting time for cycling in China. The partnership includes an agreement with the management of the team to advise and aid cycling’s development in China, building towards the next Olympic Games.
Elsewhere, Wanda has also invested into cycling through an agreement with the UCI to add a new race, hosted in China, to the WorldTour calendar. The Tour of Guangxi will be contested over 6 stages in October 2017 with both men’s and women’s events.
Wanda’s interest is two-fold. Primarily, it is in line with their diversification into sports which includes numerous football deals and the acquisition of World Triathlon Corporation, the company that owns Ironman.
Secondly, Wanda has an agreement with the Government of Guangxi to develop 11 cultural travel projects in the region. Bike races offer a fantastic advertising opportunity, enabling regions to showcase their scenery to large television audiences.
The Tour of Guangxi takes over from the Tour of Beijing, which was not a success. However, Guangxi is infinitely better suited to hosting cycling. Mountainous countryside and a warm, pollution free environment should make the race a memorable and worthy addition to the cycling calendar.
Ironman and Distance Running
Following Wanda’s 2015 takeover, the first Ironman 70.3 events have been held in China. Unsurprisingly initial attendance rates have been low, however, Wanda is increasing the number of events in 2017 to 3. Other cities, such as Xi’an, are currently being shortlisted for further expansion to fulfil 200,000 annual competitors by 2025.
In contrast, distance running has some history in China. The first international marathon was held in 1981 but attracted fewer than 200 runners. The appetite for running is building in China: the 2013 Beijing Marathon sold its 30,000 places within 13 hours and Shanghai saw 100,000 people register for full and half marathons in 2015. Even more recently, the Chengdu Panda Marathon, which offers full- and half- events, gained over 10,000 participants in the first 24 hours of open registration.
However, China is still a long way behind other countries, particularly in terms of events held. 2014 saw 53 official marathons staged, which is remarkably few compared to the 800 each year in the US.
A recent change in government policy which eliminates the need for state approval of sports competitions and events will enable many more races to be added to the calendar, paving the way to making marathon running accessible to the majority of the population.
Will they make it to the top?
Whilst companies like Wanda command practically limitless funds, cycling is highly unlikely to be the next sport to experience an explosion in popularity in China. This is largely down to the financial requirements of the sport, the wealthiest areas of China being shrouded in smog make them unappealing to budding cyclists. Participation is key to a core following in cycling and so will take time to nurture.
Likewise, Ironman is not on the verge of widespread success. The attraction of the event is that it is more challenging than any others. As such, its core audience is made up of established endurance sports enthusiasts looking for the next step. This demographic is negligible in China. Ironman will benefit as the steady growth of marathon running continues it, as will cycling, but it will be a long time before China becomes a major market.