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Skiing, skating and other winter sports became popular across China ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, and operators hope the home team’s success will translate to more business

By Li Jing Updated Apr.1

Instructors teach people to ski at an indoor ski slope in Shilin County, Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, February 9, 2018

Tourists ski at Chongli, Zhangjiakou, January 3. Chongli has seven ski resorts, and is popular with skiers from Beijing

Middle school students speed skate during a winter sports event held January 12-13, Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

A woman skates at a temporary ice rink on a frozen lake in a park, Shenyang, Liaoning Province, January 15

Messages about skiing pile up in Li Yuan’s WeChat group chats every day in the season. Two years ago, the office worker in Beijing became obsessed with skiing. She goes every week. 
Li’s 11-year-old niece has been training at a Beijing ice rink for four years and is practicing for her figure skating exams.  

According to the 2021 Report on Chinese Youth Participating in Ice and Snow Sports released by Tsinghua University Sports Industry Development Research Center in October 2021, of those taking part in winter sports in China, 34.08 percent are 17 and under, while 27.27 percent are between 18-24 years old.  

When Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2015, the primary goal according to the bid package was to “engage 300 million people in ice-snow sports.”  

A survey by the National Bureau of Statistics showed that 346 million Chinese residents, about a quarter of the country’s total population, had tried a winter sport or activity since Beijing’s successful bid by October 2021. Seventy percent said they did it for leisure.  

Hou Minghui, secretary-general of the Beijing Skating Association, told NewsChinathat after years of development, snow sports are attracting young people and families, especially during holidays. Ice sports, however, are most popular among children who have become a talent pool for professional teams. 

Amateur to Professional 
At Le Cool Ice Rink, in the basement of a high-end shopping mall among the skyscrapers of Beijing’s central business district, primary school students hustle to get to their skate lessons after school. There is always a long line of parents and children, waiting for their slot on the ice. 

Nine-year-old Li Qimiao goes to Le Cool Ice Rink at the China World Trade Center, one of Beijing’s oldest rinks, with her mother after school. She skates with her coach for an hour, then practices by herself for at least another. She’s had lessons since she was 5, and she can already land a double axel, a jump above Grade 6 (the highest is Grade 8) in China’s system of figure skating exams. 
“A lot of kids in Beijing do figure skating,” Li Qimiao’s mother told our reporter. “Not everyone is skating for fun.” 
In 2012, Wang Xuehan, a 14-year-old girl from Beijing, broke through to the national figure skating team. Unlike most Chinese athletes, she did not go through the highly competitive sports system, which trains children from a young age in specialized boarding schools. Wang was the first person trained by a private skating club in Beijing to join the national team.Shortly after, Yu Xiaoyu and Zhang Yiyi from the same club followed her.  

The Century Star Skating Club (CSSC), which trains promising children from Beijing for the national team and has three venues in the capital’s Haidian, Fangshan and Changping districts, was the first ice sports training institution in China. Together with Le Cool, the first indoor commercial ice rink in Beijing, they pioneered commercial skating in China.  

In 2000, the General Administration of Sport Winter Project Management Center published its Figure Skating Training Outline, which was revised in 2006 and 2012.  

Fan Jun, founder and president of the CSSC, said the training guide laid a foundation for the development of figure skating among the public. Using this scientific system, the CSSC and other skating clubs established later in Beijing have developed quickly.  

One year after it opened in 1999, Le Cool established a training department. “We found that some people didn’t just want to have fun, especially children. They wanted to learn to skate in an organized way,” Xiao Yuhong, deputy general manager of Le Cool, told NewsChina.  

A potential market lured the moneymen. Many commercial real estate companies built indoor ice rinks.  

“Before Beijing successfully bid for the Winter Olympics in 2015, there were probably no more than 10 ice rinks in Beijing,” Fan Jun said. “The explosive market growth came after the slogan to ‘engage 300 million people in ice-snow sports’ was put forward in the successful bid for the Winter Olympics.”  

On January 6, 2015, delegates from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Bid Committee went to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and submitted their bid. China committed to engage 300 million people in ice and snow sports, which aimed to show that China’s bid to host the Winter Olympics was not only to win medals but to promote winter sports.  

In March 2016, seven months after the Olympic bid, Beijing issued the Suggestions on Accelerating the Development of Ice and Snow Sports (2016-2022) and seven support plans. Each district in Beijing should build an international standard indoor ice rink of not less than 1,800 square meters by 2022, with at least 36 indoor ice rinks across the city. According to the Beijing Indoor Ice Rink Information Encyclopedia published in June 2017, Beijing had 73 indoor ice rinks, including those nearing completion.  

Besides the three northeastern provinces of China, where ice and snow sports were traditionally played, Beijing was early to start youth ice hockey development.  

Ice clubs such as the CSSC, which have matured in the figure skating training market, started ice hockey programs in 2006. In the following years, China’s first junior ice hockey league started in Beijing, and the Beijing Ice Hockey Sports Association was established.  

After bidding for the Winter Olympics in 2015, strong official support made this slow-developing niche sport flourish. When Beijing held the first Youth Ice Hockey League in 2008, there were only four teams. In the 13th season in 2021, 26 ice hockey clubs took part, with 256 teams and nearly 3,600 players, ranging from 6 to 18 years old. According to the Beijing Ice Hockey Association, there are 4,000 ice hockey players registered with the association. 

North to South 
Professional ice hockey clubs emerged. In early 2016, Beijing HC Kunlun Red Star Ice Hockey Club was registered in Chaoyang District, Beijing, the only club representing China in the Kontinental Hockey League, which includes teams from Russia, Finland, Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. Most members of China’s Olympic ice hockey squad come from the ranks of Kunlun Red Star, many of whom are foreign-born or naturalized players who are allowed by the IOC to compete for China because they played for Kunlun Red Star.  

In 2017, the club signed a co-construction agreement with the Chinese national ice hockey team to provide a platform to compete and train. Liu Yang, head of the club, told NewsChina that nowadays the Beijing club and its offshoot in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong Province, provide high level training platforms and talent pools for the national men’s and women s ice hockey teams, and are helping to develop professional ice hockey in China.  

Driven by the Beijing Winter Olympics, ice and snow sports are no longer limited to northern cities. By 2021, there were 13 indoor ice rinks in Shanghai, eight in Wuhan, Hubei Province and six in tropical Shenzhen. One after another, training clubs that gained experience and resources in Beijing have gone south.  

Hou Minghui, secretary-general of the Beijing Skating Association, told NewsChina there are dozens of figure skating clubs across the country. Since 2003, CSSC has set up 20 rinks in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province, Xi’an in Shaanxi Province and other cities.  

Compared with figure skating, ice hockey is less popular in the south. In 2017, Shenzhen Kunlun Red Star Ice Hockey Club was established in Longgang, Guangdong Province. However, parents from Hong Kong and Macao are more interested in the Olympic-standard rink provided by Kunlun Red Star than locals.  

Pre-pandemic, parents in Hong Kong and Macao would take their children to Shenzhen for hockey practice every weekend. Du Congfei, deputy general manager of Shenzhen Kunlun Red Star, said Shenzhen residents’ awareness and enthusiasm for ice sports improved significantly in the year or two before the Winter Olympics.  

In its early years, Kunlun Red Star offered free trial lessons for grade school students. However, few students remained on the ice. But as the countdown to the Winter Olympics began in 2021, children in southern China showed more interest in ice sports.  

Du Congfei said that starting from this year, many local schools have contacted the club, which offers classes to a growing number of grade schools and universities. Several schools organized hockey teams that practice regularly.  

According to data from the CSSC, children who train regularly at its branches in Shenzhen and Shanghai account for about half of its total customers.  

Club directors know that most children practice ice sports to keep fit or as a hobby, and that some parents push skating and hockey on their children to make them more attractive to universities in North America. Only a select few showing exceptional talent are encouraged to become competitive skaters. 

New Lifestyle 
Unlike ice sports, where children are the main force, skiing attracts mostly young adults. Li Yuan said during the snow sea son, a post in lifestyle app Little Red Book looking for people to carpool to Chongli ski resort, one of the most popular recreational ski venues near Beijing, gets seven or eight replies from strangers within half an hour.  

“There are so many skiers in Beijing now, so it’s easy to find companions whenever I go to Chongli,” Li Yuan said. She feels that skiing is particularly soothing and not only provides a sense of conquering nature but also a feeling of freedom. It also gives young people in their 20s and 30s a way to make new friends.  

Wen Mengying, deputy director of training at Chongli Fulong Mountain Sports Institute, was a professional skier 10 years ago. She feels that before Beijing and Zhangjiakou, a city in Hebei Province northwest of the capital, bid for the Winter Olympics in 2013, the majority of the public had no concept of recreational skiing and believed that it was only a competitive sport. The most famous ski resorts in China were far in the north,including Yabuli Ski Resort in Heilongjiang Province, which in 1996 hosted the Winter Asian Games.  

In 2015, the first snow season after the Olympic bid, nearly 2.5 million people went skiing in Zhangjiakou’s resorts, an increase of 31 percent year-on-year, and 450,000 of them went skiing in Chongli, an significant increase of 42.3 percent year-on-year.  

The number of snow resorts around Beijing increased from 22 before the Winter Olympics bid to 32. In order to meet growing demand, many resorts in Beijing upgraded their facilities in 2021. For example, Jiayuguan Snow Resort widened the piste and restored the advanced run to a length of 600 meters. Nanshan Ski Resort increased its investment in night skiing and increased the number of night skiing trails from 10 to 17.  

Completed in 2016, Fulong Four Seasons Town in Chongli sought to attract casual skiers and tourists. Cui Yajie, director of Chongli Fulong Mountain Sports Institute, told NewsChina that Fulong aims to be “goodlooking, fun and cultural.” Their guests are mainly families and people between 20 and 35. Different from the systematic training of indoor ice training institutions, snow sports “have different development modes among the public,” according to Cui, meaning they are more for recreational purposes, or perhaps to find that perfect influencer photo.  
Wu Bin, author of the White Paper on China’s Ski Industry and vice chairman of Beijing Ski Association, calls China’s ski market “the largest primary ski market in the world.”  

According to the white paper, there were only 50 ski resorts in China in 2000, but by 2019 it had soared to 770. The number of recreational skiers increased from 10.3 million in 2014 to 20.76 million in 2021. Nearly 60 percent live in first-tier cities and 43.3 percent of skiers earn over 10,000 yuan (US$1,572) a month.  

Hou Minghui, secretary-general of the Beijing Skating Association, said the expansion of the middle class and higher disposable income contributed to the popularity of winter sports.  
Still, winter sports are not cheap. Xiao Yuhong estimated it costs 30,000-40,000 yuan (US$4,713-6,284) a year for a child to train in figure skating, and the protective gear for ice hockey is more expensive, around 50,000-60,000 yuan (US$7,855-9,432) a year. It costs more if they want to pursue a professional career.  

The increased accessibility of winter sports has spurred upgrades across the industry. According to the China Ice and Snow Tourism Development Report (2022) released by the China Tourism Academy, the number of winter sport tourists in China is expected to reach 305 million from 2021 to 2022, with revenues expected to hit 323.3 billion yuan (US$50.1b).  

According to sales data from e-commerce site JD.com, orders for snow clothing, snowboards, ski goggles and other winter sport equipment all showed explosive growth during the platform’s Single’s Day “Double 11” shopping event in November 2021.  

Meanwhile, Chinese brands are heading overseas. According to AliExpress, a cross border e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba Group, sales of Chinese ski products increased by over 60 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared with 2020. In 2021, consumers from 100 countries and regions around the world bought Chinesemade snow gear on AliExpress. The number of winter sport enterprises has quadrupled from 2014 to 2020. 

Sarah Lewis, secretary-general of the International Ski Federation for 20 years, told the Xinhua News Agency in 2021 that the plan of “engaging 300 million people in ice-snow sports” will affect winter sports markets worldwide as more people take part.  

China certainly hopes that its snow and ice sports industries can ride on the success of its athletes, who have scored their best-ever Winter Games medal tally this year. Industry insiders eagerly await to see if winter sports can tempt more people to try them out, and escape its so-far niche appeal post-Games.