The Race for China – Winter Sports
Updated: Jun 20, 2019
Despite limited historical success, a lack of natural snow and very little infrastructure in place, China was successful in their bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Their struggles on the medal table can be easily attributed to the lack of culture around winter sports. However, this is changing.
Leading the way
Ice hockey is on the rise in China. One organisation that has played a major role has been the NHL’s New York Islanders. Through Project Hope (the charity they founded in 2006), considerable work has been done in northern China promoting ice hockey though the provision of rinks, equipment and coaching camps held during their annual visits. 2015 marked its greatest success to date when Song Andong became the first ever Chinese athlete to be drafted into the NHL. Song began playing hockey at a young age in China through a club supported by the Islanders.
The addition of Red Star Kunlun to the KHL for the 2017 season has promises to provide a huge boost for hockey in China. It will bring regular, world class ice hockey to China for the first time and will go a long way to inspiring young people to take up the sport. It will become the only sport in which China has a team competing in one of the top two leagues in the world and because of this it should prove a huge attraction. Since 2013, CCTV has broadcast live NHL games. Its ratings have doubled over the first two years.
Youth participation in hockey has been constantly rising over the last 5 years. In 2010 there were fewer than 100 children playing organised hockey in Beijing. By 2015 there were nearly 2,000 youth club members across the capital. Whilst this remains a very small percentage of the population, the trend is positive and is likely to gather pace as interest around Red Star builds. There are also plans to build 400 new full-sized hockey rinks in China by 2020, making the sport far more accessible.
Skiing in China
Generally, the first Winter Olympics sport that comes to mind is skiing. As such, it is no surprise that the government has issued an initiative aimed at rapid growth of the sport before 2022.
Skiing in China has actually been on the rise for some time. Over the last 15 years, the number of resorts in China has grown from 80 to over 500. China also boasts the most indoor skiing facilities of any country in the world and, true to form, is currently constructing what is billed as ‘the largest ski dome in the world’ just outside of Beijing.
During the 1990s fewer than 10,000 people visited Chinese ski resorts a year. By 2015 this number swelled to 12.5 million. However, approximately 300,000 of those visitors stay for less than one night and under 20,000 skiers stay for a full week. This suggests that the attraction of skiing is more about social status or curiosity that it is genuine enjoyment of the sport.
China is not blessed with the same prodigious snowfall as it’s neighbour Japan but this can easily viewed as a positive. Manmade snow is often much easier to learn to ski on and is more reliable. This winter, the first British-run ski school in China begun ski instructor training programs in Wanlong. All of their three day courses are already fully booked until January, showing that there is a strong core of skiing enthusiasts in China.
The increasing quality of infrastructure will also help the industry in China. The Olympics will demand huge amounts of building and this may well prove the biggest factor in persuading consumers to extend their stay. Western ski holidays are often as much about the village as the hill.
Will they manage it?
The current numbers show that there is still a long way to go, however the Chinese government have made a habit of reaching the targets they set. 300 million winter sports enthusiasts by 2022 seems improbable but there are plenty of examples of sports exploding in popularity once they find a foothold in China. Success in the KHL could well provide a pre-Olympic springboard that will encourage a generation to fall in love with winter sports.