As Beijing ramps up preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, mass participation in winter sports and recreations has soared, a fact highlighted by bustling scenes of people playing on ice and snow around the capital.
Despite winds blowing in deep winter chills, the laughter and high spirits of children sliding down the snow slopes at the National Stadium in north Beijing have brought vitality to the venue, which is hosting the annual Bird’s Nest Happy Ice and Snow Carnival.
An audience-interactive gala event featuring outdoor winter recreations, the carnival has become one of the hottest leisure destinations in town during the winter holiday season, thanks to growing public interest in winter sports since July 2015, when Beijing was awarded the Games.
The carnival offers 11 types of winter sports and related activities in three zones spanning 70,000 square meters both in and outside the stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, which was built for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.
The landmark venue will be refurbished to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games in 2022.
To cater to the growing number of visitors, organizers have expanded the participation area this year, adding an 800-sq-m curling rink, a 1,500-sq-m artificial ice rink that can be reassembled elsewhere and a row of virtual-reality skiing simulators inside the stadium.
Even so, the venue is still struggling to meet the soaring demand from urban winter sports fans.
Housewife Wang Jing has brought her 6-year-old son to the event three times since it opened in this month.
“Last year it was a little bit crowded on the weekends, but this year it seems crowded even on work days. The fun here is playing in the snow－even though it’s man-made, it really intrigues kids,” she said.
Li Zhiqun, assistant general manager of the National Stadium, said visitor numbers have been beyond expectations.
“Although we expanded our site and extended our operations by opening sessions at night, we were still running far beyond our capacity during the first couple of days,” he said.
“It’s a sweet headache, really, so we have to further optimize the layout to allow more activities inside and to explore new spaces in the squares outside,” he said.
Started in 2009 as one of the venue’s post-Olympic projects, the carnival has attracted more than 1.4 million visitors. Some high-level competitions, such as the International Ski Federation Freestyle Skiing World Cup and the Air and Style Snowboarding Contest, have also been held at the venue almost every year.
The carnival is open from 10am until 9pm every day until Feb 26. Adult tickets cost 120 yuan ($17) at weekdays and 160 yuan on weekends, and this year, a preferential policy has been adopted that offers free entry for children age 12 and younger to encourage more youth participation.
Meanwhile, the first 10 children checking in every day will be given free skiing lessons on the artificial snow trails, guided by the former national cross-country skiing champion Xu Wenlong.
“Compared with bigger resorts in remote city suburbs, here we provide accessible training on people’s doorsteps. It’s an effective way to allow skiing to catch on with more people at the entry level,” said Xu, who won multiple cross-country titles at the 12th National Winter Games in 2012.
Citing the addictive fun of skiing, some young Chinese enthusiasts have dubbed the sport “white opium” because their bodies itch for action every year when the snow season approaches.
The crowded scenes at major ski resorts around Beijing in late November signified China’s surging appetite for the sport, which was introduced in the early 2000s.
When the Jundushan Ski Resort in the northern suburb of Changping opened trial operations on Nov 25, general manager Qiao Wei was impressed by the large crowds lining up in the reception hall to check in, and by the long lines of skiers waiting to take cable lifts to the top of the trails.
“This year, we opened the resort as early as the weather permitted, but we didn’t expect so many customers during our test run. It turned out to be a big surprise,” he said.
Boasting a maximum capacity of 6,000 skiers on 150,000-sq-m of rugged terrain, Jundushan upgraded its cable lifts and purchased more high-end skiing and snowboarding equipment to prepare for peak business during the New Year holidays.
“The increasing number of advanced skiers among the health-conscious middle class has prompted us to provide better facilities and services. It is proof of the sport’s rising profile,” Qiao said.
According to the Beijing municipal winter sports administration, the city’s 22 outdoor and indoor ski resorts registered 1.69 million visits during the 2015-16 snow season, the highest number nationwide.
As highlighted in Beijing’s bid plan, China is rolling out a national campaign to encourage 300 million people to participate in winter sports by 2022.
The call has inspired greater investment in the winter recreation sector, which has seen 108 new ski resorts built since Beijing and its co-host Zhangjiakou, Hebei province, were awarded the Winter Games last year.
China has more than 200 skating rinks and 500 ski resorts spread across 25 provinces, and about 30 million people participate in winter sports and related activities, according to the General Administration of Sport of China, the country’s top sports body.
In November, the administration and seven ministry-level departments－including the Ministry of Finance and the National Development and Reform Commission－issued long-term national plans for the development of winter sports and construction of infrastructure.
The country aims to build 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts by 2022, laying the foundations for the winter sports industry to generate 1 trillion yuan in gross revenue, including spending at venues, equipment production and training fees, by 2025.
Developers of winter sports venues will be offered reasonable and flexible policies on tax incentives and land acquisition, according to Wang Weidong, director of the administration’s economics department. He said the administration will work with the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Land and Resources to finalize the measures.
“The acceleration of the construction of winter sports facilities is not just about hosting elite competitions, but also to stimulate mass consumption in the sector,” said Gao Zhidan, vice-minister of sport.
Despite the government’s enthusiasm, experts have warned that the industry should be developed cautiously, with integrated planning and an emphasis on service and staff training.
“The investment in the industry is mainly for the 2022 Olympics, but what happens after the Games?” said Yang Hua, a sports sociology expert and the Party chief of Beijing Sport University.
“To avoid a waste of resources and operational difficulties after the Olympics, local governments and property developers should take local tourism, accommodations and environmental protection into consideration in the bigger picture,” he said.
Yang’s suggestion has been adopted by Yanqing county in northwest Beijing, the proposed venue of the Olympic alpine skiing, bobsled and skeleton competitions.
After signing a partnership agreement with Wanke Property Development Co earlier this year, Shijinglong Ski Resort in Yanqing, which was built in 1999, has been renovated and now boasts barrier-free facilities and an internet-based management system offering online booking, payment and customer reviews.
The service upgrades, such as requiring skiers to wear helmets－and providing 3,000 free helmets－have earned positive feedback since the resort reopened in early December.
“From facilities to services and security measures, we are committed to providing unique experiences for consumers that will make them want to come back,” said Cheng Jia, the resort’s assistant general manager.
China has pledged to develop prowess in winter sports by 2022 and beyond, so involving more schools in winter sports education is a priority for the authorities.
Since last year, Beijing has selected 18 schools in the city’s Haidian district and in Yanqing as pilot schools offering winter sports training during physical education classes. The municipal sports bureau is proposing adding winter sports to the mandatory curriculum of the city’s primary and secondary schools, although no final decision has yet been made.
The capital will also encourage schools to work with downtown skating rinks and suburban ski resorts to offer students free, government-funded, training sessions off campus, said Sun Xuecai, director of the municipal sports bureau.
So far, 10 mobile artificial rinks, which can operate in warm temperatures, have been installed in schools for test use in PE classes, according to the bureau.
Since November, ski instructors and executives from the Jundushan resort in Beijing’s Changping district have visited 16 elementary and high schools and given lectures about winter sports to 6,000 students.
The first group of 200 students took a skiing class at the resort on Dec 13, and more batches will be sent to the field this winter.
Since 2014, Yanqing’s No 2 Primary School has organized annual skiing camps for students at the nearby Shijinglong Resort, which provides trainers and facilities funded by the district education commission.
“Through taking part in skiing courses, our students have a better sense of winter sports. The training helps to improve their physical conditions, while toughening their minds,” said Li Jun, the school’s vice-principal.
China has set a goal to expand winter sports education to 5,000 schools by 2025, according to the National Winter Sports Development Plan issued in November.
However, the move has prompted a mixed reaction.
“With the Olympics coming, it’s good to develop winter sports in schools, but it should not be conducted like a movement,” said Tan Jianxiang, a sports sociology professor at South China Normal University.
“The officials should respect reality and the students’ interests. What if the school doesn’t have the facilities or students just prefer summer sports, how can you make it compulsory then?”
Ren Hongguo, head of the National Winter Sports Administrative Center, conceded that implementation of the campus promotion should be improvised when necessary.
“Overcoming the lack of training expertise and qualified staff for winter sports education is a challenge that will require cross-ministry collaboration. It’s good to see that some progress has been made,” he said.
With the support of the education authority, a national outline for school winter sports education is being compiled and will be published in 2018, Ren said.