Ski and snow

The great Asian winter sports revival

As the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics kick off, PAUL MCCOMISH looks at how – and why – winter sports returned to Asia after a gap of only 10,000 years

Every Sunday just outside Beijing, Mr Zhou pushes his feet into his oversized boots and snaps the buckles before slotting them into the bindings on his long, shiny skis. They’re almost as long as Mr Zhou himself and he sways uneasily as he clambers to his feet once they’re fixed. He reaches for his helmet and goggles and crouches in his most exaggerated pose before declaring himself ready.

Mr Zhou, a Beijing taxi driver for 35 years, is one of the 15.1 million snow enthusiasts that visited China’s ski resorts in 2016. At 66 years old, Mr Zhou is among the oldest skiers on this slope – ‘it’s more of a young person’s pursuit,’ he admits – but he’s also one of its most enthusiastic.

Skiers are a growing demographic, and one that Xi Jinping is banking on expanding even more before the 2022 Winter Olympics are held in China.

Asian Winter-sports

Zheng Junfeng, a broadcaster and author of Ski in China, says one reason for the rise of winter sports is the boost in social status that comes with skiing. He believes winter sports are an aspirational pursuit in China, especially given that 54 per cent of China will be classified as ‘upper middle’ class by 2022, according to consultant McKinsey.

‘Wealthy families are looking for exciting ways to spend their leisure time,’ he says. ‘Winter sports are high-end and are linked with other high-end sports like polo and golf – it’s considered a social status thing.

‘Once people have tried skiing they are very likely to continue doing it because it’s addictive. In China, we call it “white opium”. It’s also a good way for families to spend time together. It’s one of the few sports that whole families can do together. It provides a good break from urban life.’

Enthusiasm for winter sports across Asia has heightened since South Korea’s Pyeongchang county was chosen to host this year’s Winter Olympics; and that interest intensified when Beijing was selected to host the 24th edition in 2022.

Those Games will represent just the third and fourth times that the Winter Olympics have been staged in Asia. Japan has previously hosted the Games twice: in Sapporo in 1972, and in Nagano in 1998. After each of those successful Olympics, the country’s love of winter sports exploded.

Garrett Grove

Today, there are over 500 ski resorts in Japan. After the 1972 Games, the country went from a virtual unknown in the winter sports community to becoming a popular destination for enthusiasts across the world. It still enjoys a reputation for its superb skiing conditions and exquisite scenery. Japan is also one of the world’s leading competitors in ski jumping.

Christina MacFarlane is a winter sports broadcaster for CNN. She believes the foundations for Japan’s winter sports development were forged in its hosting of the Games. ‘Japan in particular has had a relatively long winter sports history thanks to the 1972 and 1998 Winter Olympics, and its performance in the ski jump in ’72 [when Japanese athletes swept all three medals]. After the Games, ski jumping continued to develop, resulting in an area of excellence that continues to flourish today.’

It’s over six years since South Korea was awarded the 2018 Games and the country has been busy preparing ever since. Teams of Games officials have attended training courses in Europe and North America in an effort to compensate for their lack of expertise and to ensure they don’t fluff their lines when the torch lands in Pyeongchang on 9 February.

‘South Korea’s success in hosting the Seoul [Summer] Olympics in 1988 convinced the International Olympic Committee to accept them as hosts for 2018, even without substantial winter sports experience,’ MacFarlane adds. ‘I expect South Korea will follow in the same footsteps as Japan, which has shown that a home Olympics can be a big driver in creating a sporting legacy and industry.’

Yong Pyong Resort, South Koreacredit: Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization
Courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

In China, nothing provides a fillip for a sport quite like success on the global stage. An Olympic gold on home soil would fire winter sports into the stratosphere, as Li Na’s success in becoming the first Asian to win a grand slam title at the French Open in 2011 did for tennis in China.

But Zheng Junfeng suggests the country already has deep roots in winter sports.

‘According to anthropologists, humans started skiing in the outer mountains of Xinjiang around 10,000 years ago,’ he says.

‘That much has been recognised by historians. But in modern Asia, in the past few decades, people were just not really into the sport. Modern skiing originated from the Alpine region of Europe. All the ski equipment, all the clothing, the snow making machinery are European. So it’s an imported sport for Asians and specifically Chinese. In that sense it will take some time for people to acknowledge it as a common pastime.’

The sprawling Genting Resort Secret Garden, just outside Beijing near the city of Zhangjiakou in Hebei province, is one of China’s largest ski resorts. It’s one of a raft of new facilities that has sprung up in China in recent years. At the 2022 Winter Olympics, it will host skiing and snowboarding events. The resort is a staggering undertaking: costing RMB6.5 billion (HK$7.7 billion) and occupying 99 square kilometres of land, it offers 87 ski routes, an ice rink and a hotel.

Mr Zhou’s belated skiing career began at the Genting resort and it’s there he can be found each Sunday on one of its intermediate slopes. ‘My aim is to be good enough to represent the country in 2022,’ he says.

Asia’s best winter sports spots

Asia is the fastest developing winter sports market and ambitious developers are opening up a slew of new resorts.

Rusutsu Ski Resort, Hokkaido, Japan

winter sports Japan
Kenta Raw Matsuda

Rusutsu has some of the Japan’s most favourable skiing. Its tree runs in particular are known for their splendour. Elsewhere at the resort, you can enjoy horseback riding on the silver birch trails or dog sledding.

Jisan Forest Resort, Icheon, South Korea

skiing at Jisan Forest Ski Resortno credit

A visit to Seoul can be enhanced with a trip to Jisan Forest Resort, just 40 minutes away from the capital. Here, revellers can enjoy night skiing (until 12 February) until 4am with DJs keeping the slopes hot through the night. While the skiing may be aimed more at families given the uniformity of its 10 slopes, the resort is also noted for its half pipe and hosts snowboarding competitions.

267, Jisan-ro, Icheon

Darbandsar Ski Resort, Tehran, Iran

Behrouz Mehri / AFP

Few would consider Tehran among potential places to enjoy winter sports, but in the Alborz Mountain region lies the Darbandsar ski resort, which at more than 3,000 metres above sea level is among the most elevated places in the country. The modern resort offers Western-style facilities (although no alcohol), stunning scenery and some of the strangest and most inventive ski outfits you’ll see anywhere. Aside from skiing, ice climbing is the main attraction – the local training school is a big hit with tourists.

Yabuli Ski Resort, Heilongjiang, China

winter sports

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is a permanent fixture on the cultural calendar in northern China. But winter sports are on the agenda, too. The Yabuli Ski Resort is one of China’s biggest and regularly hosts professional alpine ski competitions at this world class resort.

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