Franz Klammer, Pirmin Zurbriggen, Ingemar Stenmark.
All skiing legends, and Olympic gold medallists.
You are less likely to have heard of Han Xiaopeng, but he’s a skiing gold medallist too.
Han claimed Olympic gold four years ago in Turin. Unlike Klammer – who raced down slopes – and Stenmark – who slalomed between poles – Han practices a more acrobatic form of skiing, freestyle – sometimes known as ‘hotdogging’.
This brand of aerial skiing only became an Olympic event in 1994 and Han is one of China’s best gold medal hopes for the forthcoming Winter Olympiad in Vancouver. The country is sending its largest team ever to the event – 91 athletes competing in Anta-branded sportswear.
Four years ago, the Chinese team won just two golds, four silvers and five bronze medals. So expectations for Vancouver are being heavily stage-managed.
“We started taking part in winter sports much later and we faced great obstacles,” says Zhao Yinggang, China’s winter sports chief. “Generally speaking we are below the level of the summer sports, but are working hard on narrowing the gap and we hope our athletes can achieve better results than at Turin.”
Skiing is enjoying something of a boom in China. Its association with a chic, healthy lifestyle is tailor-made to appeal to the nation’s growing ranks of nouveau riche. A decade ago there were only 10 ski resorts nationwide – and an estimated 20,000 skiers in the entire country. Today there are 200 resorts, and a skiing population of around five million. There are now 700,000 new enthusiasts falling off ski-lifts each year, estimates Changchun’s City Evening News.
Jilin province is one of those heavily promoting the sport. It has over 20 resorts. Beidahu is one of the best known at the luxury end of the spectrum, having received a Rmb720 million ($105 million) investment from Hong Kong-based Melco Resorts. A five star hotel is now being built.
There are a number of ski slopes not much more than an hour or two’s drive from Beijing too. One – Nanshan – attracts around 8,000 people on weekends. As its director of marketing points out, that is only likely to grow: “Beijing’s ski market is still at the early stage.”
WiC doesn’t find that hard to believe. Your correspondent visited a ski slope close to the Great Wall a couple of years ago. Most of the visitors were day-trippers from Beijing who’d never skied before, The slopes were lined by armies of staff, whose only job was to run onto the piste and pick up skiers who’d fallen over.
But if China remains on the nursery slopes today, the law of large numbers suggests steeper pistes will soon be negotiated. If countries with populations of 8.3 million (Austria) or 7.7 million (Switzerland) can produce great champions, China’s growing ski-set will surely produce the Alpine champions of tomorrow.
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