The stands at the Beijing Winter Olympics may be mostly empty and the venue encased in a strict covid-19 bubble, but no matter China’s medal haul, the country’s nascent winter sports industry is emerging a winner.
Just a decade ago, few in China were familiar with snow as a leisure activity. But since Beijing’s successful Olympics bid in 2015, the number of ski resorts grew by more than 40% to roughly 800, according to the 2020 China Ski Industry White Book (pdf), while the number of ice rinks tripled to more than 650. By 2020, the winter sports industry was worth 600 billion yuan.
Now the Winter Olympics are fueling demand for winter sports gear, which spiked during the Lunar New Year holiday. Although overall retail sales for the holiday were weak, slipping 4% compared to last year, all things snow and ice recorded big increases.
During the holiday, which this year ran from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, sales of skiing equipment grew by 180% on Tmall, the country’s biggest e-commerce platform, while items for ice sports jumped over 300%. Alibaba data also showed snow-related vacations during the holiday surged by more than 30% from a year ago. And in the month before the Olympics kickoff, sales of winter sports gear rose 107%, while apparel and protective accessories rose 99% and 41% respectively, according to data from JD.com, China’a second largest e-commerce operator, (link in Chinese).
China bets on indoor ski parks
More than 346 million Chinese people have participated in winter sports since 2015, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That exceeds the goal Xi Jinping set that year to engage 300 million,or around a quarter of the population, in activities like skating, skiing, and ice hockey.
To achieve its new target of growing the sector to 1 trillion yuan, or $157.2 billion, by 2025, China is relying on unorthodox methods. The country’s snowfall and snow quality is far behind places like Japan, France, or Italy—Beijing 2022 is the first Winter Olympics for instance to completely rely on artificial snow—so the government has invested heavily in ski simulators and indoor ski parks.
Shanghai boasts the world’s largest indoor ski park and similar facilities have enabled even the southernmost provinces along the subtropical belt to try out winter sports.
China now leads the world in the number of indoor ski venues. Even with covid-19 restrictions for indoor activities, indoor ski parks accounted for more than 20% of the 12.88 million skier visits China saw in 2020.
The Eileen Gu effect
Infrastructure, though, is only part of the equation. Athletes are key to nurturing a culture around snow and ice. The biggest marketing tool China has for the snow lifestyle is Eileen Gu, the American-born free-style skier who competes for China.
In the last Winter Games in Sochi, China only took home three golds. This year, Gu is expected to win three golds for China by herself, and has already secured one. The athlete’s main talking point has been her wish to inspire young girls to pick up the sport.
Figure skating, a sport with a growing number of Asian faces, is another field with untapped potential. That representation helps, even when the athletes are from other nations. The US’s Nathan Chen, who is of Chinese descent, and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu both have built followings in China.