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The new venues for the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics were designed to maximize sustainability and post-Games use. Now they have become global icons as well

By Xie Ying , Du Wei Updated Apr.1

National Speed Skating Oval, or Ice Ribbon, Beijing

National Ski Jumping Center, also known as the Snow Ruyi, Zhangjiakou

National Sliding Center, or Snow Dragon, Yanqing, Beijing

National Alpine Ski Center, or Snow Swallow, Yanqing, Beijing

Big Air Shougang, the venue for the big air snowboard and freestyle skiing events

Standing high atop the Xiaohaituo mountain area in Beijing’s Yanqing District some 90 kilometers from downtown, seven Olympic ski courses flow down the mountain like a huge swallow spreading its wings. Officially named the Yanqing National Alpine Ski Center (NASC), the “Snow Swallow” was designed and built for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, held from February 4 to 20. The NASC is 2,198 meters above sea level at its highest point, and the venue where the world’s best downhill and slalom skiers fought for Olympic glory.  

Also in the Yanqing cluster of venues is a 1,900-meter-long snow track covered with a wooden roof, creeping like a huge dragon to the foot of the mountain. Known as the Snow Dragon, the National Sliding Center (NSC), the second of the new purpose-built venues in the Yanqing Olympic cluster, held the bobsled, skeleton and luge events.  

Some 100 kilometers further to the north west lies the third Winter Olympic zone, in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province. The Zhangjiakou cluster includes the venues for most of the freestyle ski and snowboard events, the biathlon and cross-country, and the crowning glory, the new 160-meter-high National Ski Jumping Center (NSJC), or Snow Ruyi, in the popular ski resort of Chongli.  

The three new venues, which form the snow sports zones for the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, not only had to prove they were up to international elite sport standards, but also have to show a sustainable post-Games legacy in an country which is only starting to develop ice and snow sports leisure and tourism. Ice sports were held in downtown Beijing, in a mix of mostly repurposed venues from the previous 2008 Summer Games.  

Snow sports were a minority pastime when Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Games along with Zhangjiakou in 2015. It was a completely new challenge to design and build snow sports stadiums to the high standards required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), while taking post-Games use into consideration. 

Start from Scratch 
Olympic skiing events expanded greatly from the men-only Nordic-style races at the first Winter Games in Chamonix, France in 1924. Alpine skiing for men and women did not debut until the 1936 Games at GarmischPartenkirchen, Germany. At the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, there were 11 gold medals available in Alpine skiing, although the Chinese team only sent two competitors in the slalom.  

Before the Snow Swallow was finished at the end of 2020, China did not have any Alpine ski runs that met IOC standards. If it were to host a successful Games, and able to hold the blue riband downhill races, China needed to step up its preparation.  

According to the International Ski Federation, courses for the men’s Olympic downhill races should offer a vertical height difference of more than 800 meters. In April 2013, the China Ski Association (CSA) was tasked with finding a suitable mountain around Beijing. If it failed, China could not host a Winter Games. After visiting all the ski fields in and around Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the CSA and China’s General Administration of Sports chose the Xiaohaituo mountain area in Beijing’s northwest district of Yanqing, which already has an established winter sports, spa and outdoor tourism industry, as well as the most visited section of the Great Wall at Badaling. Although the mountain was not perfect – some of its slopes are too steep and some others are too flat, they believed the southeast face was up to Olympic standards.  

“Courses for ski races generally have an average slope of 30 degrees and the maximum slope for competitive ski courses is close to 36 degrees... Athletes can ski up to 130-140 kilometers per hour, so including the runs for athletes to get back to the Olympic Village, the NASC’s total height difference reaches nearly 1,300 meters,” Hui Shiqiao, the venue’s media director told NewsChina. 

Blank Slate 
“China is disadvantaged and was a blank slate when it came to snow sports like Alpine skiing, bobsled and luge, so we had to start the design, construction and operation of those venues from scratch,” Li Xinggang, chief architect at the China Architecture Design & Research Group and general designer of the Yanqing competition zone for the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, told NewsChina.  

When it came to sliding sports, Zhang Yuting, deputy chief designer of the Snow Dragon, said China was a blank slate. Before the venue was built, there were only 16 sliding sports centers in the world, 10 of them in Europe.  

Zhang Yuting’s team visited venues in Germany, France, Italy and South Korea to gather the information they needed, only to find some venues were already too antiquated or were temporary structures that now looked completely different to when they were used in a Winter Games. Some others protected their technologies and design with copyrights and were reluctant to share.  

“We didn’t even know how to configure the track and other functional spaces at first,” Zhang Yuting told NewsChina.  

First they put the athletes’ changing rooms on the second floor, but the design was changed after an international expert told them at a conference in 2017 that it should be on the first floor as the athletes are accustomed to bringing their bobsleds and luges with them.  

The sliding sports of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton are among the fastest and most dangerous sports in the Winter Olympic Games – downhill skiers can go faster. Lugers can reach speeds of 130 kph, and the bobsled has a similar average speed, pulling up to 5g in gravitational force. Skeleton athletes, who hurtle head-first down the track, are slower than the luge, but not by much.  

To ensure the track was up to international standards, Zhang Yuting’s team invited leading international experts to design the track and the ice-making system. She said the 1,975 meter-long track (with a competition length of 1,615 meters) contains 16 bends with a vertical height difference of 121 meters. The track also has a 380-degree spiral bend of a radius of 27 meters, which will be a new challenge for athletes. All sliding events use the same track, with different start points.  

Constructing so many curves and bends was an enormous challenge for the builders, who had to spray concrete to shape the curves under which ice-making pipes are buried. To keep the deviation below 5 millimeters, builders divided the track into 54 sections and tried very hard to get the spray right the first time. The work was so meticulous that it was described as “embroidery on the snow.”  

“We had to find the right balance between fun, challenge and safety,” said Zhang, revealing that the Snow Dragon track received much praise from foreign athletes during Olympic test events.
Ecological protection was an important consideration when designing the new Olympic venues, making use of geological advantages while overcoming the disadvantages. 

Of Nature, For Nature 
The National Ski Jumping Center (NSJC) in the Zhangjiakou cluster was designed and constructed at the same time as the Yanqing venues. Taking reference from plans the Beijing Organizing Committee sourced from Canada, the US, France, Finland and Switzerland in 2017, the NSJC is in the form of a ruyi – a scepter-shaped Chinese talisman which symbolizes good fortune. The Snow Ruyi is one of the most spectacular venues of the Games, and is formed of a cantilevered circular viewing platform and clubhouse that appears to hover like a flying saucer 40 meters above the mountain, forming the head of the ruyi, and the snow jumping tracks forming the handle, with circular audience viewing stands at the base to complete the design. 

Wang Jingxian, facility manager of the Guyangshu venue cluster in Zhangjiakou, which includes the Snow Ruyi and courses for Nordic events, said the location for the ski jump was chosen in the northwest of the Guyangshu cluster where a bowl-shaped col could shield athletes from the prevailing northwest winter wind. Ski jumping requires wind speeds of less than three meters per second. The vast wide valley around the Snow Ruyi is ideal for other winter sports. Other venues in the cluster include Genting Snow Park, which hosted most of the freestyle ski and snowboard events, the National Biathlon Center and the National Cross-Country Ski Center. Genting Snow Park was adapted from an existing resort and will be returned to its owners after the Games.  

Professor Zhang Li, head of TeamMinus architectural studio in Beijing and director of the Architectural Research and Design Institute of Tsinghua University, was in overall charge of the Zhangjiakou competition zone, as well as Shougang Big Air – the striking venue for the ski and snowboard big air events in southwest Beijing on the site of a disused steel works. He said the two ski jumps of the Snow Ruyi – one for Normal Hill and the other for Large Hill – were built over the valley to make use of the contours of the mountain. “The builders had to manually sink 136 anchor poles to suspend the sliding track above the ground... and they had to excavate some places where the mountain was higher than the track slope,” he told NewsChina. “It’s good to protect the local geology and ecology by ensuring the jumps aren’t close to the ground, since it will not prevent surface runoff needed for the local vegetation,” he said. His team took into consideration the contours of the ground, surface runoff, local ecology and animal migration routes.  

“We respected the natural mountain form even when some parts did not conform to the shape of the design,” he said.  

Li Xinggang’s team designed a terrain weather protection system (TWPS) for the bobsleigh and luge tracks of the Snow Dragon in case the southern slope where the track is constructed absorbed too much sunshine and melted the ice. The designers tailored an overhead sunshade for the tracks whose height and width were precisely calculated based on the sun’s angle between October and March. In this way, the TWPS ensures the stability of the ice for the competitions as well as being energy-saving.  

The Snow Swallow for Alpine skiing is equipped with a snow-making and waterdiversion system consisting of three recycling reservoirs that collect snowmelt and rain from the competition zone to reuse for irrigation and making snow. Despite heavy snowfall midway through the Games, the Beijing Winter Olympics relied on artifical snow for all its snow sports venues that are located in the arid area of North China.  

Yanqing competition zone invited experts in forestry, geology and ecology to conduct a thorough investigation into local plants, animals and general ecology before Olympic construction started, Chinese media reported. Vegetation that would not be affected by construction was left in situ, and others were replanted.  

By the end of June 2021, news portal The Paper reported on-site protection of a total of 313 trees, with another 24,272 replanted into the protection bases, over 90 percent of which have survived. The builders repaired and restored some animal habitats during the construction, such as making culverts for animals to pass under and using waste soil and rock to build habitats for reptiles. 

Post-Games Use 
Despite the wow factor of the new venues, many worry they will become white elephants after the Games, a well-known issue where costly Olympic stadiums and facilities are underused or fall into disrepair, a fate seen by venues after Athens 2004 Games and Sydney 2000. Post-Games use has become a key concern and challenge for Olympic organizing committees.  

According to the plans of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, the new snow sports venues will remain in use as training venues for domestic athletes and will continue to host international competitions. The competition zones include ski runs and facilities for public use outside competitions.  

China has experience in post-Games use. The National Stadium or Bird’s Nest, and the National Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, were built for the Summer Games in 2008. Both venues have been successfully turned into two multifunctional centers for tourism, commercial activities and public entertainment. The Bird’s Nest is the site for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter and Paralympic Winter Games, and the Water Cube, renamed the Ice Cube for the Games, is the venue for curling. According to a Beijing News report published on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on August 8, 2018, the National Stadium has transformed from being dependent on tourism, which provided 95 percent of its revenue in 2009 to commercial events providing 75 percent of total revenue in 2018. 

During that decade, the National Stadium received some 32 million visits and hosted over 600 events, and the National Aquatics Center 20 million visits and 1,200 events. Some two million people have used the Water Cube’s swimming facilities.  

But post-Games use of Winter Olympic snow facilities will be harder, as many sports are not popular and even little-known in China.  

“The public in some countries like to watch ski jumping competitions at the club level or even try out smaller jumps themselves, but China doesn’t have these kind of clubs or accessible jumps, so it’s hard for the public to participate,” Wang Jingxian told NewsChina. “Even professional Chinese athletes are not so good at snow sports, though they are strong in ice sports. Only one of the 13 gold medals the Chinese national team won in previous Winter Games since they first participated in 1980 was in snow sports,” he added.  

While China did not see medal success in Alpine or Nordic skiing, it does have world beating freestyle skiers and snowboarders in teenagers Gu Ailing Eileen and Su Yiming, which may go some way toward boosting post-Games interest, particularly among young people. Wu Bin, founder of a Beijingbased ski business and deputy chairman of the Beijing Ski Committee agreed with Wang’s assessment. Only regular skiing and snowboarding see much public participation, and there is no demand for other disciplines like ski jumping and cross-country skiing.  

“Although there are more than 700 public ski resorts throughout the country, most are in poor condition and of low standard,” Wu said. In his 2020 report on the Chinese Skiing Industry, Wu found that China only had 28 skiing fields with a vertical drop of over 300 meters, and these resorts attract 17 percent of total customers. 
Wu believes the biggest challenge for the Snow Swallow is whether it can attract enough customers post-Games to cover the cost. “It’s not a problem that we’ve built a ski field for higher-level skiers, but it should be noted there aren’t very many advanced skiers [in China],” he said, adding that a balance should be struck between the needs of professional athletes for high-standard facilities and those for amateur skiers.  

More difficult and dangerous, sliding sports have little public participation anywhere. There are only 16 icial luge tracks in the world.  

According to Zhang Yuting, they plan to turn parts of the Snow Dragon into a commercial center and a research center for ecological restoration. They also designed a public zone where the track’s vertical height difference falls to around 40 meters, much lower than those for professional athletes at 121 meters.  

Even so, the equipment is very expensive – NBC reported that an Olympic bobsled can cost anywhere from US$30,000 to US$100,000. It is not known what the public interest would be or how much a ticket would cost to try a sliding sport.  

Zhang Li does not think that snow sports alone will support post-Games use of the new venues. Many ski jump venues were dismantled after Winter Olympics, including those built near Sestriere, a winter sports destination in the Italian Alps and one of the venues for the Turin 2006 Winter Games.  

That is why the Snow Ruyi has a multifunctional space above the jumps, which includes a restaurant which will be used for tourism, conferences and exhibitions, Zhang Li said. There are steps alongside the jumps to allow hiking as well, and a standard soccer pitch down in the valley.  

Inspired by Swiss experts, the designers built a three-kilometer-long elevated circular path called the “Ice Jade Ring” which links the Snow Ruyi, the biathlon center and the cross-country ski center which will be used for leisure and hosting mountain bike races.  

“Post-Games use means turning a venue designed for superstars and professional athletes into one for ordinary people,” Zhang Li said. A key indicator to measure post-Games potential will be if people can spend 2.5 hours visiting and using the facilities such as the Ice Jade Ring.  

“We have to see how a building grows and serves people and society after it starts being used by the public,” Zhang Li said. “The new venues will be tested in the Olympic Games, but another test is five to 10 years after the Games to see how much they can integrate into people’s lives... Time is the test of a building’s idea, design and construction,” he added.

A worker sprays water on the ice of a curling sheet for the 2022 Winter Olympics at the National Aquatics Center, also known as Water Cube, January 28. The Water Cube hosted swimming events during the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and was renamed the Ice Cube for the Winter Olympics

National Biathlon Center