Beijing emerges as 2022 Winter Olympics favorite

Justin Bergman - The Philippine Star

The new front-runner to host the 2022 Winter Olympics doesn't have a long winter sports tradition. Then there's the matter of snow, or lack thereof. The mountains near Beijing where Olympic bidders want to hold skiing events receive less than a meter (yard) of snow each winter.

But what increasingly matters in the race for the 2022 Games is money, and China has plenty of that. Combined with political will and strong public support, Beijing may be the strongest bidder left to host an Olympics that few other cities seem to want.

A year ago, Beijing was considered a long shot to land the 2022 Games, particularly with other Asian countries already lined up to host the next two Olympics — the 2018 Winter Games will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Tokyo has the rights to stage the 2020 Summer Games.

But then public opposition and financial concerns in Europe began whittling the field of candidates one by one. St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Munich dropped their proposed bids, followed by Stockholm; Krakow, Poland; and Lviv, Ukraine. Then Oslo, Norway, pulled out last month due to lack of political support.

Suddenly, Beijing was in a two-city race with Almaty, Kazakhstan, another of the early long-shots. The host city will be selected next July at an International Olympic Committee assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The promotional blitz has begun. Last Friday, the Beijing 2022 Olympic Bid Committee unveiled a Facebook page and Twitter feed and released a video depicting scenes of victorious Chinese athletes at previous Winter Games and an animation of a planned high-speed rail line that will connect venues in the city with those in the mountains in 50 minutes. There was a venue tour for media on Tuesday, ahead of a visit later in the week to the Association of National Olympic Committees meetings in Bangkok.

While public opinion in some European cities turned against bidding for the Olympics due to the $51 billion Russia spent preparing for and staging the Winter Games Sochi, the Beijing bid committee confidently notes on its website that "these are not problems for us."

"We have strong political support, economic strength, the public support of hundreds of millions and a stable domestic situation," the committee wrote in an editorial that was republished on Chinese sports websites. "These are precisely what a host city for the Winter Olympics should have."

The other thing a Winter Olympics host should have is snow, and herein lies one of the major challenges for the mountains northwest of Beijing, where alpine skiing events would be held, and the mountains near the city of Zhangjiakou, the proposed site for Nordic skiing.

"The winters are extremely cold and extremely dry," said Fabio Ries, the Italian co-founder of the Duolemeidi Mountain Resort, which opened near Zhangjiakou in 2006. "When it snows, the landscape is white, basically for the whole winter. But the snow coverage itself is pretty poor."

Ries said none of the ski resorts in the area could operate without man-made snow, but this presents another problem for Olympic organizers: a severe water shortage in northern China that ski resorts have already been blamed for exacerbating. Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO, estimated in 2011 that the 17 resorts use at least 1 million tons of water every year-the equivalent of 8,300 households.

"Many new ski resorts have been built or expanded in the area that do not have water resources," Ries said. "Some of them, they have to pump water from hundreds of kilometers (miles) away just to make snow. It's not really environmentally friendly."

Another environmental concern Olympic organizers would have to contend with is Beijing's notorious pollution. Although the Chinese government successfully cleared the skies in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics by closing factories and enacting severe traffic restrictions, pollution has been a concern at other sports events in recent years.

During the cycling Tour of Beijing last month, for example, one of the mountain stages had to be shortened because of poor air quality.

In the run-up to a Brazil vs. Argentina soccer friendly last month, traveling media reported that the Brazil squad was ordered to stay in the hotel except for training sessions due to the pollution. The smog was so bad at an LPGA tournament last year that some golfers took to wearing face masks on the course.

In its editorial, the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee played down the pollution concerns, blaming foreigners for creating the mocking nickname "gray Beijing."

"Although it's said in jest, it's worthy of reflection," the editorial said. "But linking the haze to the Winter Olympics in a negative way exaggerates the problem."

The bid committee did not respond to requests seeking further comment.

The government may be able to control the pollution, but can it fill the stands?

China has become a force at recent Winter Games in figure skating, short-track and speed skating and freestyle skiing. In other sports, though, China lags far behind. At the Sochi Olympics, only two Chinese athletes qualified in Alpine skiing and their best result was Xia Lina's next-to-last-place finish in the women's giant slalom. The Chinese didn't fare much better in biathlon or cross-country skiing.

"In certain sports, we do have a strong presence, but in other sports, there's a huge gap. You can't name a downhill skier and there's not even a bobsled team," said Li Sheng, founder and CEO of SECA Worldwide, a Shanghai-based sports marketing company that has worked previously with both the Chinese Olympic Committee and Chinese Winter Sports Federation.

Though participation rates in sports such as downhill skiing and ice hockey are still relatively low compared with some countries, they are growing quickly as the Chinese middle class expands. According to the Chinese Ski Association, there were fewer than 10,000 skiers in the country in 1996; estimates now put that number above 5 million.

Li believes these numbers could spike if Beijing wins the 2022 Games. Already, he said, the highway to Zhangjiakou is packed on Friday afternoons in winter with Beijing residents going away for ski weekends. On the day Beijing submitted its Olympic bid, Li estimated condo prices in the resort area rose by 100,000 renminbi (US $16,300).

"I think 2022 will definitely help change a generation by promoting winter sports in a way that only a Winter Olympics can," Li said. "The big challenge is how to embrace that opportunity and have more programs to get people ready for the Games so they're not just watching out of curiosity but really starting to like winter sports."











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