May 22, 2022

winter sports resorts but no champion, the limits of the Chinese model

In 1996, China had only one ski resort. Today there are nearly 800, twice as many as in France. A figure that has been multiplied by 4 over the last decade. More than a sporting event, the Winter Olympics in Beijing – the first city to host the Winter Olympics after the Summer Olympics in 2008 – were seen by the Chinese authorities as an opportunity to develop a new economic sector. .

While tourism already represents 10% of Chinese GDP, Xi Jinping has set the bar very high: the Chinese president is aiming for 300 million Chinese skiers by 2030. As often, the People’s Republic of China is thinking big for its ambitions on the ski market. ‘White gold. But in reality, this great leap forward, Mao Zedong’s famous formula, in skiing is not so simple.

To analyze this titanic and rapid development of winter sports in China, we must first ask ourselves about the government’s motivations. The main one: it is the image that the Middle Kingdom sends back thanks to sport in general. An image that has evolved considerably thanks to the Beijing Summer Games in 2008. “China has understood what it has to gain by investing in sport and the Olympics, even if it means facing its own contradictions by participating in competitions where Taiwan also participates. Soft power is essential in Chinese strategy”, explains Lukas Aubin, geopolitical specialist in sport.

But that’s not all. In truth, since its birth, the communist regime has forged a special bond with Olympism. And for good reason: in 1954, the IOC became the first international body to recognize Mao Zedong’s regime, five years after the end of the civil war. This paves the way for the progressive recognition of Communist China by the international community. In fact, since that time, sport has gradually become an instrument for demonstrating China’s rise to power on the international scene.

China’s first successes were at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, boycotted by the USSR. China is 4th in the medal standings and has established itself as a sporting power.”, says Lukas Aubin. He adds : “Chinese politicians will say that sport must be taken as a very positive element to improve the image of the country internationally, and to show the internal successes. All this is validated by obtaining the 2008 Olympics, which devotes China as one of the world’s leading sports powers”.

Fourteen years after the triumph of 2008 – China dominates the medal table for the first time – the Winter Games promise to be much less glorious for the Chinese athletes.

In 2022, we should be far from the demonstration of 2008. Firstly because things have changed in the meantime: “A few years ago, there was a real desire in China to show that it could organize major events. Now it’s done. This political aspect is much less important. It’s obviously flattering to do the Winter Olympics in China, but it’s much less important than Beijing in 2008, especially with the boycott”, analyzes Jean-Louis Rocca, a sociologist specializing in China.

He adds : “China has taken a deep step back on these issues of presence in international sport. There were big ambitions, especially for the football team. But it’s an absolute disaster with a lot of corruption and problems. On skiing it’s even more complicated. There are no Chinese champions, and we are far from having any.”.

Chinese skiers on a chairlift at the Genting Snow park Olympic site on December 21, 2021. (WANG ZHAO / AFP)

Beyond the organization of the Games, the development of winter sports in China sends another message: that of a country sufficiently developed to have a middle class that is discovering the joys of skiing. Jean-Louis Rocca develops: “It all started at the end of the 1990s, when the Chinese started having vacations and entering the consumer society. We had to make them consumers. From there, a whole tourism industry developed with the development of tourist sites. And then people got into skiing.”

If sport has long been a “tool of emancipation from the bourgeois yoke”, as Lukas Aubin explains, skiing is the symbol of a modern, affluent and globalized China whose objective is to be the greatest world power in all areas in 2049, for the centenary of the revolution. Communist. “Apart from sports victories, having a middle class that goes skiing is a sign of a prosperous society. is created from scratch”, notes Lukas Aubin. And in practice, it can be seen in the pharaonic development of Chinese stations.

To create its network of ski resorts, China first took the time to analyze the different models around the world. A local habit, explains Lukas Aubin: “China has long observed and reproduced the Soviet mode of operation. As early as the 1960s, China moved away from the USSR and sought new allies with the famous ping-pong diplomacy: meetings between Chinese and American players that resulted in a meeting between Chinese and American leaders.

By liberalizing its sport to open up to the Western world, while preserving its tradition and the Soviet legacies, China then gave birth to a syncretic model which takes the best of the other models, like its regime combining communism and capitalism.

Except that in skiing, despite the many partnerships with Western winter sports countries (sending instructors, twinning resorts, etc.), it’s not that simple. “All the major winter sports nations have had teams and structures since the beginning of the 20th century, recalls Jean-Louis Rocca. It’s a bit complicated to get Chinese teams out of the hat in ten years, especially since they don’t don’t have the equipment for that yet”.

And the sociologist to depict the network of resorts of the middle empire: “White tourism in China is for beginners. These are resorts to teach people to ski, because there is no ski culture at all. The Chinese go there for skiing, but also for eating, shopping, going to the spa, etc.” All in big hills where natural snow is rare. We are far from the immense domains of the Alps.

The new housing built in Chongli for the 2022 Beijing Games, in December 2015. (STRINGER / IMAGINECHINA)

Under these conditions, it is difficult for China to bring out medal-winning athletes on skis for these Beijing Games. Apart from figure skating, or freestyle, Chinese ambitions will be measured in these Games. “It doesn’t interest the Chinese. They are interested in sports where the nation is strong. They may take a look like that, but it’s not the big enthusiasm at all,” announces Jean-Louis Rocca, “The Chinese are sportsmen, but not supporters”.

Even less for Games where the Chinese delegation will not shine on the medal table. “They will report the success of these Games on the health side, to show that they have succeeded in organizing clean Games, without contamination. That will be the pride of the Chinese: that everything goes well”, announces the sociologist. Anyway, this will be the only hope of a people who discovered skiing barely ten years ago. The proof when you ask Luc Alphand his opinion on the chances of a Chinese medal in alpine skiing: “No hope. If there is a Chinese medal in alpine skiing, I will walk back from Beijing. You can write it down!” The former World Cup winner can start checking in for his return flight.