How the Olympics Turned China on to Skiing
Behold the astonishing explosion of alpine sports in the People’s Republic—as directed, promoted, and financed by the Communist Party in the run–up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics
The signs leading into town hint at the insanity. TURN CHONGLI INTO A DISTRICT WITH CIVILIZATION AND ETIQUETTE! screams a banner fastened to a construction fence. Behind it stands a row of shiny new statues of skiers crouched in racing tucks. And a billboard on the main highway from Beijing showing fresh tracks on an open slope says, YOUR MARK LASTS LONG AFTER YOU GO! Impressions here matter a lot these days. When the Winter Olympics come to China in 2022, this rapidly evolving outpost of miners, farmers, and bureaucrats will host a number of events and medal ceremonies. You simply cannot have pigs pooing in the street.
Chongli is a sprawling, mountainous region roughly 100 miles northwest of Beijing. The highest peaks reach 7,000 feet, while the urban core sits at around 4,000 feet and is home to some 30,000 people. Here, villagers come to shop at the Fresh Pork store, the Peasant Pork store, and a store called Bacon. Not even a decade ago this was one of China’s poorest communities, the kind of place where people stored potatoes in caves. Now cranes rise above the horizon, constructing multibillion-dollar ski resorts atop the dusty brown earth. Shiny BMWs share boulevards with rickety motorcyle carts laden with housewares. Chongli today is ground zero for a massive and extraordinarily expensive top-down government directive to pump up a winter sports culture.
Download the Audm app for your iPhone to listen to more longform titles.
It’s a savagely cold night in February, close to zero degrees, and I’m walking back to the Pengyuan Business Hotel, where rooms can be rented in four-hour chunks and meals look like something you’d get in jail. Next door, across from what will one day be an Olympic medal plaza, light pours from a storefront onto the sidewalk. There’s a tuning bench by the window and ski posters on the walls. I go in.
“Uh, hi, ni hao. Are you guys open?” A couple are busy stocking shelves with bottles of Chinese beer. Wei Zhonghua, or Rex, as he calls himself in English, and his wife, Wang Yun, or Melody, greet me warmly. “We don’t see too many Americans,” Melody says in excellent English, offering me a lager called Boiling Snow. She is 32, tall and slender. “Are you here to ski?”
“I am,” I say, looking around at race bibs tacked to the cement walls, rows of skis, and clean ashtrays on the tables. It feels like a ski shop run out of a dorm room. “What is this place?” I ask.
Rex, who is a boyish 33 with a stocky build, pulls up a chair. “The best ski club in Chongli,” he says, then bursts into laughter. He’s only half joking. Two years ago, he and Melody started the Liu Ji Ski Club as a place where Chinese could sign up for lessons, learn about racing, and perhaps join the club’s Phenix Demo Team, a group of friends who wear the same red outfits as they bounce around the country looking for gates to bash.
Outside, a three-wheeled taxi trundles by. We sit around a long wooden table chatting until club members trickle in. Wang Xiaowen enters with a guy named Eagle, who wears a Titleist hat. Another man named Shi Xiaolei sees me, pauses a beat, then greets me in Korean, which makes everyone laugh. Then the club’s namesake, Liu Ji, walks in on pistons for legs.
“Our secret weapon!” Rex says. “Do you know Liu Ji? He’s very famous. Everyone in Chongli knows Liu Ji. It’s why I named my club after him!”
Liu Ji, 37 and a top club skier in China, gives me a thumbs-up with a thumb wrapped in gauze, from a tuning accident.
Everyone has come to town for the season finale of the Chinese Ski and Snowboard Federation’s race series, which takes place in a few days at Wanlong, a nearby resort that opened about a decade ago, making it one of Chongli’s oldest ski areas. Prizes include a season pass to Wanlong, thousands of dollars in gear, and a ten-day trip to Jackson Hole. But for the Liu Ji Ski Club, the races are just a shakedown for the China Alpine Ski Racing Circuit, a national championship of sorts. The circuit concludes in March at Yabuli, a ski area some 700 miles northeast of Beijing. Rex really wants his team to win that one again.
“If we do, we get to keep that,” he says, pointing to what looks like old-school football headgear painted matte gold and sitting on a shelf. “The Golden Helmet,” he coos. “There is only one.”
“And what about the Olympics?” I ask. “Could China win gold there?” The room goes quiet.
“Skiing is not Ping-Pong,” Rex says matter-of-factly, but he also wants to make one thing clear: “We are Chinese, and the Chinese can do anything.”
When Beijing secured the bid to host the 2022 Winter Games after every other candidate but Almaty, Kazakhstan, pulled out, a collective groan hung in the air like so much particulate matter. The opening and closing ceremonies, as well as ice events like skating and hockey, will happen in the capital, and they will be awesome, because the Chinese do mass spectacles in controlled environments better than anyone. Mountain sports, however, are another story.
Resorts around Chongli will host the nordic, snowboard, and freestyle events, all of which will play out on ribbons of man-made snow draped over a scruffy landscape of hardwood trees, wind-scoured ridges, and tight ravines. Despite the relentless, flay-your-face-off cold, the region gets only about 60 inches of snow a year, if that. What’s more, none of these slopes offer the requisite 800-meter vertical drop for Olympic downhill courses, so the alpine events will take place in Yanqing, 85 miles back down the road toward Beijing, which sees even less snowfall. The average natural base of the future downhill course: 1.97 inches.
Despite conditions, the hills within range of Beijing have become the epicenter for a sudden, almost unfathomable explosion of Chinese snow sports. According to a report on the Chinese ski industry presented in 2016 at ISPO, the world’s largest sporting-goods fair, China’s 50 ski areas logged a collective 300,000 visits in 2000. By July 2015, when Beijing won the Winter Games, the country had 568 ski areas and 12.5 million visits. “When the Games start, China could have 1,000 ski areas,” says Erin O’Hara, an American who until recently was the vice president of marketing at Genting Secret Garden, one of the bigger and swankier resorts in Chongli.
While most of the ski areas are extremely small—think 350 vertical feet—the extraordinary surge in the Chinese market is turning heads in the industry. “It’s fascinating,” says Andy Wirth, president and COO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, the parent company of California’s Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski areas. Wirth has been cultivating a marketing relationship with Genting Secret Garden for several years. “The growth is basically everything Europe and North America have seen since 1975 compressed into a matter of years.”
The early stages of the boom were driven by demand for recreation among China’s expanding middle class. Landing the Olympics prompted the government to fire its enormous economic rocket boosters. In his pitch to the International Olympic Committee, President Xi Jinping promised that by the time the torch burned over Beijing, China would have 300 million winter-sports enthusiasts, up from about 15 million, according to the FIS, skiing’s international governing body. To realize the Happiness Ice-Snow Dream—as the Beijing municipal government calls it—the Communist Party has turned to its favorite growth engine: speculative real estate development. The government essentially owns all the land in the country, and its formula is to sell plots to developers (which are sometimes state institutions), facilitate loans through government-owned banks, and promise a market for their product through government action.
“Imagine if the Fed, the Treasury, the House, the Senate, and the executive branch all got together and issued guidance to bankers, educational organizations, planning departments, developers, and athletic groups to support the development of skiing,” explains Wirth.
In 2016, Wang Jianlin, one of China’s wealthiest men, opened a ski resort in northeast China with some 3,000 beds and two golf courses, with a price tag of $3.5 billion. In June, he put the finishing touches on the world’s largest indoor snow park, a $6 billion facility 365 miles to the north that includes six ski runs. Presently, developers have invested more than $10 billion in flashy new resorts that are going up in record time, mostly in Chongli, because it’s close to Beijing—and getting closer. A new bullet-train line being constructed for the Olympics will slash city-to-slope travel times for 22 million people from four hours to less than one.
The Olympics have also added an emotional component to the rush. China won 51 gold medals when Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008. At the Winter Games in Sochi, the country took home three, all in speed skating. A Chinese skier won a gold medal in aerials in 2006 in Turin, but the country’s best alpine-skiing finish ever at the Olympics was 18th, in 1980. They’ve never had a skier qualify for a World Cup race. For a global power, that’s all kind of embarrassing, especially since China’s ur-inhabitants may have invented the sport. Even Norwegians, credited with creating skis in the 1800s, know about the ancient petroglyphs in the Altai Mountains that depict proto-schussers chasing ibex.
Thus, in 2016, the Beijing municipal government issued Document No. 12, which spells out a plan “to achieve the gold medals breakthrough.” Its lengthy list of detailed directives includes building facilities, training thousands of athletes, coaches, and technicians, and even upgrading software. Meanwhile, the Communist Party has activated its sprawling propaganda apparatus to drum up excitement for winter sports through events like the Teens Winter Games. Turn on China’s CCTV-5 sports channel during the winter and you’re guaranteed to find ski- and snowboard-related programming. Promotional squads have been dispatched to schools to hold assemblies where students come up on stage and click into skis and snowboards. “They feel happy when we do that, because some have never experienced the sport,” says Eddie Yang, 26, a promoter I met in Chongli who supervises a children’s ski school. “It’s a cool thing for us.”
And therein lies the drug. If the 2008 Games were China’s coming-out party, the 2022 Games are being packaged as a way to enhance the Chinese quality of life, a core aspect of the president’s “China Dream” slogan. “The messaging is all about the people,” says Justin Downes, a former ski-industry executive who now owns the Beijing-based Axis Leisure Management, the company to call if you want a ski resort built in China. “It’s: eat better food, drink clean water, stop smoking, get outside, get fit.”
The upshot of all this is that China now finds itself wrestling with a challenge that the snow-sports world hasn’t seen since alpine resorts became a thing so many decades ago. In a nation where nearly everyone is a beginner, someone has to teach them.
Back in the day, which is to say the early 2000s, if you wanted to learn how to ski, you turned to Flower. Her real name is Hao Shihua and she’s now 46, with closely cropped dark purple hair. She was a badass technical skier who won nine national alpine championship events in China’s fledgling scene between 1989 and 1992. Flower turned to teaching in the late 1990s and produced what for a time was the only instructional ski video aired on state TV.
You can still find it on YouKu, China’s version of YouTube. In it, a perky Flower is ripping around on her red and white Dynastars wearing her red and white jacket and her red and white headband. Behind her, rows of students do their best to link prissy turns with arms outstretched like wings. Her methods have endured over the years, and you can instantly spot someone who has taken Flower’s lessons by their soaring-eagle style.
These days, Flower works next to the future Olympic plaza in Chongli, in a concrete building that serves as the base for Flower Ski, China’s first professional ski-training institution. Business is booming, she tells me through her business partner, Ma Chi, or March, a man in his late thirties. Flower offers me a cup of green tea and tells me she has 60 instructors working for her. “Next year I need 500,” she says. I nearly spit out my tea.
If I want to see some instructors in action, she says, I should head over to Fulong, a $3.9 billion ski area that in just six months erupted from bare rock slopes to a full-service resort with a gondola, a chairlift, and eight magic carpets. I hail a cab and head out.
“Hello! Hello!” a guard calls after me when I arrive, confused, to find Fulong’s nearly empty dirt parking lot punctuated by a massive Christmas tree. It’s windy and foggy. The guard suppresses a giggle as he directs me to the ski center, where a sign reads FULONG FOUR SEASONS RESORT, A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN BE WIDE-OPEN.
I don’t see Flower’s instructors, so I find a table near the Food Selecting Area to boot up and survey the scene. The space feels more like an airport terminal than a lodge, with enormous ceilings and wall-to-wall stone floors that are being cleaned by a dour-looking man atop a tiny buffing machine. A curved glass wall 100 feet high looks out on a beach of man-made snow and a small city sprouting out of the leaden earth: dozens of cranes, an enormous Holiday Inn, scores of condos. Three more lifts are in the works, along with an aerial tram to connect the resort to downtown Chongli, two miles away.
The owner, Wang Cheng, 39, a former farmer and army guy who now owns coal mines, supermarkets, and chemical companies, walks by with a coterie of advisers and nods a subtle hello. I’d met him a few nights earlier over dinner in a private room at the Tang Inn in Chongli, where he delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why skiing matters.
“As a human, you should create value for society and the people around you,” he told me then. Wang said that from time to time he plans to open the resort to anyone in the greater area—all 125,000 of them—for free. Given the $130 price for a lift ticket and rentals (the going rate at nicer Chongli resorts), that’s probably the only occasion when many of them will be able to make turns. “You should make people feel happy,” he said. “I want them to have fun.”
That’s pretty much the exact opposite of Flower’s approach. When Chinese interest in snow sports started skyrocketing, many ski schools adopted Western methods developed by groups like the Professional Ski Instructors of America. The result: only 2 percent of first-time Chinese skiers try the sport again, compared with 10 percent in the U.S. “Western people don’t mind taking a lesson for a few hours each time they go ski, for years,” March told me. “After two or three days of lessons, Chinese people want to know how to ski, no exceptions, and it’s your fault if they can’t.” Chinese students also tend to view their instructors as servants, there to fetch water, buckle boots, and order lunch. Instructors end up on a quest to make clients feel like they can ski, even if they can’t. “They become waiters looking for a tip,” he said.
Now, Flower’s $875 five-day boot camp, which includes lift tickets, meals, and lodging at one of several Chongli resorts, guarantees newbies that they’ll be making summit runs by the end. The course follows a daily six-hour regimen of classroom time, indoor training, and lessons on the slopes that follow a holistic approach to development—complemented by a heavy dose of shame tactics. “When I see them lying down or complaining, I shout at them, ‘Get up! No excuses!’ ” March says. “No Western people would ever take lessons like this, but Chinese have learned this way in school forever.”
At Fulong, the fog breaks and I catch a glimpse of some Flower Ski instructors in training, who wear bright yellow jackets while railing fast turns in tight formation. I race outside and ride gondola L1 up to a shoulder where runs B1 through B15 drop down spines that have been squared off in ways that make mountaintop-removal mining seem gentle. The rating system for the runs seems like a mix of North American and European methods, with green circles that progress through blue squares, red diamonds, and ultimately black diamonds.
I click in at the top and rocket down B8, a blue-red slope. I dare say it’s a hoot, like skiing down a giant Slip ’N Slide with neck-breaking cliffs just beyond the orange safety fence guarding either side. The man-made snow is silky and fast, almost like corn, but on a ten-degree day. I pause just in time to see an instructor lose an edge and flat-spin into a fence. When I ride up the gondola again 20 minutes later, he’s in the same spot, but strapped into a rescue sled.
The day before the races at Wanlong, I check into a stylish modern room at Genting Secret Garden with a private hot tub. A Malaysian developer opened the resort, which is located about nine miles east of downtown Chongli, in 2012. The two-lane road from town winds through a village called Yellow Dirt Mouth and past a guard in the middle of nowhere who salutes drivers zipping by. To the right stretches Thaiwoo, a new Western-style resort that sits along a crumbling section of the Great Wall. The bullet train from Beijing will stop near here.
It’s a gorgeous bluebird day, and I ski a run with O’Hara, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to China a decade ago. The resort currently has five lifts and about 20 runs; by 2021 it will have 16 lifts and 88 runs. O’Hara points out flags on a dirt slope marking the future Olympic mogul course. One run is named Squaw Valley. At Squaw, there’s a run called Secret Garden.
That small bit of cross-promotion is part of a larger partnership between the resorts that began in 2016, when season-pass holders at either mountain were given five days of free skiing at the other. Last May, Squaw hosted a delegation that included the Chinese Freestyle Team and Secret Garden operations managers. (Unbeknownst to Wirth, Secret Garden hired his son Jace in early 2017.) Last winter, gold-medal Olympian Jonny Moseley, a Squaw ambassador, spent some time bopping around Secret Garden with locals on Ski with Jonny days.
Squaw isn’t the only American ski company looking to make inroads in China. Billboards touting Aspen Snowmass and Vail’s multi-resort Epic Pass can be found at base areas around Chongli. I spotted Jackson Hole’s bucking-bronco logo on race bibs. Staffing exchanges between U.S. and Chinese resorts are increasingly common. “Anyone associated with the ski industry is watching China with great interest,” says Ian Jenkins, Vail’s director of international sales.
Still, nobody expects to lure significant numbers of Chinese skiers to American slopes anytime soon. Squaw Valley sees only a few hundred per season currently. By the time the Olympics are held that could increase tenfold, though even then it’d make up less than 1 percent of Squaw’s total visitors. Instead, resorts are taking the long view—and they have reason to be optimistic. A recent study by global forecasting firm Oxford Economics suggests that the Chinese will spend upwards of $255 billion on international travel by 2025, roughly twice as much as Americans. More than 80 percent of China’s nouveau riche are under 45 years old, and the reciprocal ten-year visa policy with the U.S. that was negotiated with the Obama administration has greased the wheels for tourism growth.
More pertinent to ski areas, the Chinese are hungry for adventure sports. In the small resorts close to Beijing, there’s a burgeoning park and pipe scene with an urban flavor that’s reminiscent of Southern California’s Mammoth. Here, Chinese athletes are demonstrating great promise. Snowboarder Zhang Yiwei, 25, was pulled out of a gymnastics academy at age 11 and strapped to a snowboard. In 2015, he became the first person from any nation to land a triple cork in a halfpipe. “The big thing happening isn’t that kids enjoy the park, but the change in parental acceptance,” says Simon Adams, 37, a Scot who has lived in China off and on since 2003 and helped create Yibu Parks, a company that builds ski and mountain-bike terrain features. “Before, the one-child culture forced parents to wrap their kids in cotton balls whenever they weren’t studying. Now they’re encouraging them.”
Mei Zhang, founder and CEO of WildChina, a Beijing-based luxury-travel operator, recently launched a subsidiary that specializes in taking Chinese clients hiking in U.S. national parks or climbing up Mont Blanc or Kilimanjaro. “It’s all emerging,” she says. In 2006, Outside began offering a China edition that now has 60,000 readers a month.
After some more laps at Secret Garden, I meet up with Wang Xiaoyuan, a.k.a. Uncle Cho. Thirty-nine, with shaggy hipster hair, he opened a park and pipe club outside Beijing in 2000 that has since transformed into a 12-store, $9 million enterprise called FreeSkiZone. As Uncle Cho sees it, China’s embrace of Western recreational sports is part of a rapidly evolving concept of the good life. “Five years ago, we’d go places to buy Chanel,” he says. “Now we go to Boston to run marathons.”
The next step, he tells me, is for the Chinese to start creating and selling their own gear. Uncle Cho has been picking the brains of K2 and other American brands as he prepares to launch a line of skis and apparel that will be designed in America and made in China.
“We are not the same China as before,” he said. “We’re not just copying and looking up to the West. We are hard workers—fast and faster—and we have a chance to do something. This is our country now.”
On the day of the Wanlong event, Rex pings me on WeChat, the go-to communication app in China that’s zeroing in on Facebook as the world’s most popular social-media platform. (Facebook is blocked in China.) Wanlong shares a broad ridge with Secret Garden, and he suggests I hike over. I ride the lifts up, shoulder my skis, and cruise for ten minutes along a wide, mostly flat path to reach Wanlong in time for lunch. Rex and others from the Liu Ji Ski Club, plus dozens of other clubs, were competing in heats on giant slalom-like courses all morning, but I’d be able to catch the finals.
O’Hara told me that of all the ski areas in Chongli, Wanlong is the most Chinese. I see what he means immediately. The slopes are packed with hundreds of skiers and snowboarders, some barely in control, but many improving beginners with textbook form. Rex and Melody meet me inside the main ski center, a wood and glass complex where their crew has gathered around a communal pot of noodles. There’s a huge play area for kids and a sparkling kitchen that offers cooking classes (Wanlong’s owner, Luo Li, made his fortune selling Western-style pastries). The food is outstanding—hot pots, stir-fry, sushi, dumplings—but to buy any of it I need to use QR codes through WeChatPay.
Rex speaks great English, but his attempts at British slang sometimes misfire. “Do you want to go?” becomes “Do you want to fuck off?” I do want to fuck off, so I shell out $50 for a two-hour lift ticket. Being season-pass holders ($1,480!), Rex and Melody use their fingerprints to get on the lift.
“I’m already out of the race,” Rex tells me sullenly as we drift over the birch trees. He lost an edge on a qualifying run and missed the cutoff. “We still have Liu Ji.”
We float over a spot where a luxury hotel and restaurant are scheduled to open soon. Yellow Dirt Mouth comes into view, and Rex turns almost sentimental. “That village was very poor before, but now their lives have been changed,” he says. They used to pull turnips. “Now they drive grooming machines and work in the cafeteria under much better conditions.”
It’s a pleasing sentiment, but it ignores the complete lack of environmental review for projects here, as well as the fact that many of the ski areas being built might not last after the Olympics. China is already littered with spectacular high-yuan real estate projects that have transmuted into eerie white elephants. One example is Saibei, the country’s first private ski area, which opened in 1997 south of downtown Chongli and now sits derelict. The place could double as a set for a zombie horror movie, complete with rotting chairlifts that squeak in the breeze and a giant concrete snowman that once housed a disco.
Here at Wanlong, though, I can’t help but feel hopeful seeing so much enthusiasm for a sport I love. In their pursuit of new experiences, a rising class of Chinese thrill-seekers are becoming skiers who, with their arms stretched out like wings, enjoy the pleasures of crisp air entering hot lungs as they carve their way down mountains. No matter how manufactured the scene may feel at the moment, the boom has scattered the seeds of ski bums.
“The thought of being a ski instructor, who gets to ski for a living, who can work for a few months and then travel to ski some more—the young people think that’s awesome,” says Xu Zhongxing, or Johnxon, a former chief instructor at Genting Secret Garden who became something of a celebrity after teaching for a couple of seasons in the Alps. He’s since become the head of a ski school at Cui Yunshan, a new ski resort in Chongli. “Now when I tell people what I do, they think, That guy must be somebody.”
At the top of the lift I drop in behind Rex, who arcs powerful turns down a very crowded slope. We regroup with Liu Ji club members at the race finish line for the final heat, where competitors end their runs in sliding hockey stops that send up huge clouds of snow, then shuffle up to a camera to be interviewed by a presenter holding a stuffed-animal microphone. All of them talk about how fun skiing is, how great the snow is, how healthy they feel.
“Here comes Liu Ji!” Rex shouts. The club gathers closer. There’s a moment when Liu Ji nearly loses it rounding a gate, but he reels himself in and blasts across the finish line as the clock flashes 29.23 seconds. It’s enough to take the win.
A DJ cranks out the Weeknd’s “Starboy” as Rex and crew storm the stage and pose for photos. There’s free Boiling Snow beer and cookies. “The best club!” an announcer says, handing over a chalice filled with beer. “That felt so good!” Liu Ji gushes.
Over the next few weeks, Rex and I keep in touch on WeChat. I send him pictures from home of skiing at Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, and he sends me pictures of him and Melody goofing off at dinner. One evening my phone dings with a message from Rex, who’s at Yabuli for the big season-ending event.
“Do you remember the race I told you about, the national one?” he writes.
“I do remember!” I reply.
“This time all the good racers joined the race.”
“Did your club get the Golden Helmet?”
It did. “I got fifth,” he writes. “Liu Ji got first.”