China is applying industrial policy to winning gold at the Winter Olympics

Swiftly approaching.
Swiftly approaching.
Image: Reuters/Tingshu Wang
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It’s impossible to watch any recent Olympics in a crowd in China without hearing a dismissive comparison to Beijing 2008. The perceived success of the Beijing Olympics, the first Games hosted by China and at which China won its most ever gold medals, remains a point of national pride and one of the country’s few successful expressions of soft power.

In the lead up to those Olympics, China implemented Project 119, an industrial development plan to train the country’s athletes and make them competitive for the 119 gold medals available across five of China’s worst sports: track and field, swimming, rowing, boxing, and sailing. Alongside other sports development strategies, including focusing on women’s events and competitions involving agility, billions of dollars were subsequently poured into training athletes and building sports infrastructure, and at the 2008 Olympics China ultimately topped the gold medal count for the first time.

In Tokyo, the US narrowly beat China at the last minute for the most gold, with 39 medals to 38.

Whether China can recreate that success with the 2022 Winter Olympics next February, even with home field advantage, remains an open question. Potential Games-derailing issues like Covid-19 and diplomatic boycotts over human rights aside, winter sports have never been China’s strong suit. While China placed in the top three medal winners in the 2004 and 2000 Summer Olympics—the first place in medals in 2008 was arguably always in reach—the country has never made it in the top 10 for the Winter Olympics, with the exception of seventh at Vancouver in 2010.

One reason is China simply doesn’t have enough competitive winter sports athletes. In 2018, the country’s athletes competed in only about half of the 102 events at Pyeongchang and won a sole gold medal, while the US entered at least one athlete in almost every event. China subsequently vowed to qualify for all of the 2022 Olympics’ 109 events.

And it’s possible they might. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission Chair for the Beijing Games Juan Antonio Samaranch, China in 2019 had “more than 3,300 athletes training in the national team,” compared with 300 who trained for Pyeongchang. This sharp increase is likely due to the national support winter sports has been receiving in recent years.

A winter sports industrial strategy

Unsurprisingly, since the successful Winter Olympics bid was announced in 2015, Beijing has nurtured winter sports the same way it did with the Summer Games and has always done with the national economy: industrial policy.

The Ice and Snow Sports Development Program (2016-2025) highlighted priority sectors for investment, such as winter sport infrastructure, snow equipment manufacturing, competitive performance industry, tourism, and winter sports education. It also set lofty 2025 targets: increase Chinese participants in winter sports to 300 million, grow the total value of the industry to about $155 billion, and build 5,000 bootcamp-style elementary and middle schools focusing on winter sports.

Since then, other prominent national plans have highlighted the importance of developing China’s winter sports industry, including the National Fitness Plan (2016-2020), the National Ice and Snow Sports Facilities Construction Plan (2016-2022), the Ice and Snow Tourism Development Action Plan (2021-2023), and even the recent 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025).

These plans combine investment in infrastructure and educational programs as part of a national strategy to create a winter sports industry. They have also directed eye-popping industrial subsidies to the sector. According to the 2021 China Ice and Snow Tourism Development Report, released by the China Tourism Academy, private and public investment in the sector in the three-year period from 2018 to 2020 exceeded $140 billion.

The number of ski resorts and total skier visits increased by 35% and 67% respectively between 2015 and 2019, according to the 2020 China Ski Industry White Book. China now has more ski resorts than the United States. Similarly, the number of indoor ice skating rinks is targeted at 650 in 2022, up from 188 in 2016. The United States has around 1,500 indoor ice rinks.

Deepening ties with winter sports nations

In preparation for the Winter Olympics, China also signed agreements with numerous countries, including Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and Austria, to host and train Chinese athletes in the countries’ national sports facilities. China has also recruited foreigners as head coaches for a number of the country’s weaker sports, such as speed skating, curling, and skiing.

This strategy has often seen success in the Summer Olympics, where most recently the Chinese rowing squad was led to two bronzes and a gold medal by venerated Olympic oarsman and coach Steve Redgrave at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Unfortunately, in addition to having more ground to make up than was necessary for the 2008 Summer Games, a successful showing at the 2022 Olympics may be derailed by diplomatic boycotts over China’s human rights abuses as well as by Covid-19, although the latter may also end up helping the development of China’s winter sports offerings as people cannot travel abroad to ski.

It has become an aphorism that the Olympic Games are about much more than just sports. The 2008 Beijing Olympics represented for many the marking of China as a great power. The 2020 Tokyo Games were supposed to be Japan’s resurgence after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. And China is hoping to use 2022 to show the world the success in the country’s management of Covid-19.

With a budget of nearly $4 billion, it goes without saying that the Winter Olympics will be a glitzy affair. It won’t be long before we see whether the years of work and billions in winter sports investments can push China’s athletes up onto the podium in 2022.