Feb 1, 2022 - Sports

China embraces winter sports ahead of Olympics

Illustration of a cross country skier

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Olympics are about more than medals. They’re about leaving a lasting legacy for the host nation, and China’s goal for Beijing 2022 is an ambitious one: transform into a winter sports nation.

By the numbers: When China won its bid to host these Games, its goal was to attract 300 million new winter sports participants by 2022. It has exceeded expectations, attracting 346 million, per the organizing committee.

  • Facilities have boomed in lockstep with demand, aided by tax incentives intended to spur growth. More than 450 ice rinks and 300 snow resorts have been built since 2015.
  • 67% more people visited a Chinese ski resort in 2019 than in 2015, per China Daily, and all those customers — in the world’s most populous country — means a lot of money.
  • The industry generated $94 billion in 2020, and reports suggest that number could reach $157 billion by 2025. The U.S., by comparison, generates approximately $20 billion.

The backdrop: To say this happened overnight wouldn’t be that much of an exaggeration. To wit, in 1996, China had just 11 ski resorts, which makes sense given its relatively modest annual snowfall. In fact, these Olympics will be the first ever to use 100% fake snow.

  • Yes, but: While China’s winter sports industry is booming, the culture is still in its nascent stage. “Most of us are still [beginners],” said one local skier.

The other side: Growing anything too fast has inherent risks. The Chongli District — a resort-filled hub three hours north of Beijing — is mired in debt as revenue lags far behind Olympic-based spending, with pandemic restrictions further amplifying losses, per the Financial Times (subscription).

Zoom out: China won’t be the first host to use the Games to improve a local sporting culture: Albertville 1992 helped turn the Mont Blanc region into France’s leading winter sports destination, and since Salt Lake City hosted in 2002, Utah has become a year-round hub for sporting events.

Go deeper