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Project 2022: China building winter sports culture from scratch

Chinese delegation
The Chinese delegation, led flagbearer Zhou Yang, parades in the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo: Aris Messenis / AFP via Getty Images

China’s first appearance in the Winter Olympics was at Lake Placid in 1980, where its 24 athletes won zero medals. Thirty-five years later, Beijing won a bid to host the 2022 winter games. China’s goal? To turn millions into ski enthusiasts by then.

The big picture: China has won 546 total medals in the Summer Olympics, but just 54 in the winter games. The Chinese are determined to impress when the world comes to Beijing in four years time, and to create a ski culture that will last far beyond the games.

The infrastructure

  • China is using the 2022 Games to build an entire industry around winter sports. Soon after it was announced in 2015 that Beijing would host, China launched a plan to build 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts (complete with fake snow) by 2022. That's enough infrastructure to host 300 million of its citizens, and the Chinese government hopes they will keep using the facilities long after the Olympics have left Beijing, the Telegraph reports.
  • “A high-speed train will soon shuttle Beijing's more ambitious skiers 95 miles north to Chongli, where most of the event's snow sports will take place. It's the centerpiece of a campaign to satisfy evolving tastes and ensure billions funneled into Olympic projects don't go to waste,” the LA Times’ Jessica Meyers writes.
  • "The success of this national effort rides on an adventurous, expanding middle class that could redefine the global ski industry. 'It's the only market with such tremendous potential,'" Laurent Vanat, a Swiss ski consultant, told Meyers.

Beijing 2008

  • China’s race to 2022 seems familiar to David Dollar, a China expert at Brookings who lived in Beijing in the years leading up to the 2008 Summer games. China made a similarly big push to groom its athletes for the 2008 games, Dollar says.
  • China spent a record $42 billion on the 2008 games, per the WSJ. That included $3 billion on an airport terminal and $500 million on the iconic "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, which sits empty today. To compare, 2004 host Athens spent $15 billion. But China will likely spend even more in 2022.
  • The payoff: China picked up 100 medals, 48 of them gold, in front of the home crowd. There was an immense sense of pride in China for having won the most gold medals, Dollar tells Axios.

What to watch

  • Most of China's medals are won in individual contests as opposed to team Olympic sports, Dollar says. "It's a low-trust society [where people are] not used to depending on people outside of their close family clan." If Chinese parents have a talented child, they want that child to succeed individually, without relying on other teammates to also excel, says Dollar.
  • In Pyeongchang, a test run for 2022, China expects to do well in short track skating, figure skating, freestyle skiing and speed skating.
  • The early results aren't great: China sat 15th in the medal table as of Thursday night with just two medals, both silver.
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