Shanghai: a hot spot for winter sports

By Alywin Chew in Shanghai ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-03-12 08:35:46

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are six years away, but southern China is already warming to the event

It rarely ever snows in Shanghai and it is highly unlikely one will ever get to skate on a frozen lake in the city.

But these factors have evidently no bearing on people's interest in winter-related sporting activities as thousands packed the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center on March 5 to catch athletes in action at the ISU Shanghai Trophy competition.

The fact the crowd comprised people of all ages who were willing to travel to the arena in the relatively remote Pudong New Area was another indication of ice skating's growing popularity.

While the adults cheered for their compatriots in the thrilling speed skating events, the children were fixated by the synchronized performances from several international teams. There appeared to be an element of idolatry too - a group of cheering girls gushed and cooed every time the boyishly handsome Sandor Liu Shaolin, a Hungarian-Chinese speed skater, appeared on the screens.

"My kids particularly love the synchronized skating events because it's a beautiful performance to watch. I personally like the longer distance speed skating races because they can get really exciting," said Wu Junhao, a Shanghai native who brought his two children to the event.

The 36-year-old said he occasionally ice skates with his family at various rinks in Shanghai and has noticed the number of people has steadily risen over the years.

"We have skated at the Mercedes-Benz Arena and the rink at People's Square. We started ice skating a few years ago and the rinks have been getting more crowded in recent times. We've also been to Harbin, which is a great place to ice skate because of all the other winter attractions available," said Wu.

Over at the other end of the arena was Shen Mingyue, a 67-year-old grandmother who was there with her family. While she conceded she knew little about ice skating, or any winter sport, she said it was nevertheless an enjoyable experience.

"I really like the synchronized segment. It's a beautiful show of teamwork and athleticism. And though I'm probably too old to do winter sports, I can still show support for my country's world-class speed skaters," she said.

Shen's faith in China's speed skaters was not misplaced. China's women athletes swept all three medals in the 500m event while Wu Dajing and Xu Hongzhi won gold and silver in their respective 500m men's finals. The same dominance was demonstrated in the 1,000m race with Han Tianyu, a silver medalist at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and Qu Chunyu winning the men's and women's gold respectively. The gold medals for the 1,500m men's and women's races were won by China too.

"Beijing can be considered to be home to the most vibrant winter sports scene now. The other popular cities are all located in China's north eastern regions," said Chen Yao, an official from the Chinese Skating Association.

"But the audience figures here in Shanghai have been growing steadily over the years too and part of this is due to the various high-profile sporting events that we have held in recent times. For example, the ISU World Figure Skating Championships was held here last year."

Commercial enterprises already have made moves to tap into the potential of the Shanghai market. Chinese companies Harbour City Development Company and Shanghai Lujiazui Group will be collaborating with Singapore's KOP Properties to open the Winterland resort in Shanghai's Pudong New Area in 2019.

Measuring 213,000 square meters, the leisure destination is set to become the largest indoor winter resort in the world. Besides accommodation, food and entertainment, Winterland will also have a massive Olympic-standard winter sports facility that will feature an ice skating rink, skiing and snowboarding slopes and an indoor ski trail.

In terms of the popularity of winter sports, Chen said ice skating is without doubt the most popular one in China while ice hockey could be ranked second. Although the latter is a relatively new sport in China, Chen said there has been growing interest in the northern Chinese cities.

One of the reasons behind its rise can be attributed to a Chinese ice hockey player named Song Andong.

Last year, Song made sporting history when he became the first player from China to be drafted to the prestigious National Hockey League's New York Islanders as a defenseman.

Shanghai: a hot spot for winter sports

Local and foreign media went wild over Song's accomplishment, and many have stoked the flames of speculation over whether he can be the "Yao Ming of NHL" and do for the Islanders what the Chinese basketball legend did for the Houston Rockets in the NBA.

Broadcaster CCTV has also started screening live NHL games regularly and famous teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs have sponsored youth clinics in Beijing and Shanghai in recent years.

Tourism surge

But those two sports aside, China's stature in the international curling scene has surprisingly been growing rapidly too. The women's national team won the world championship in 2009 and it managed a bronze finish at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The surge in tourist numbers in ski resorts countrywide also suggests interest in winter sports and other related activities is on the rise.

According to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism Development, the number of tourists heading to ski resorts in Beijing jumped 8.6 percent in 2015 from the previous year. Over at Chongli of Zhangjiakou, co-host city of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, there was a 30 percent surge over the same period.

In January, the 13th National Winter Games of China was held in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, the first time the event had been held outside the usual provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin.

The decision to do so has been linked to the Chinese government's plans to attract 300 million people to participate in winter sports ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

One of those who have been fervently championing winter sports in China is Chen Lu, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist figure skater who runs the World Ice Arena facility in Shenzhen. Together with her husband, Denis Petrov, a former Olympic figure skating medalist, the duo has been working to develop skating rinks around China for about a decade.

Yang Yang, the two-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater who was last year appointed as one of the nine members in the International Olympic Committee's Ethics Commission, has done likewise, opening the Feiyang Skating Center in Shanghai in June 2013. The center has since become home to a budding league of ice hockey players, local and foreign, in the city.

Cal Wong, one of the executive committee members of the Shanghai Hockey Club, estimates the number of Chinese people joining the organization has increased by 10 percent each year.

"Perhaps people are now just more exposed to the sport, either through media, friends or word of mouth. It's a much safer sport than many Chinese think and I think they realize it more now.

Also, China's winning bid to host the Winter Olympics could be another reason why exposure and curiosity has increased," said Wong.

Chen echoed the sentiment that the popularity of winter sports is set to expand even more in the years to come.

"The Chinese government and the various sporting bodies are committed to the development of winter sports and people can expect to see more of such events as well as new ice rinks and winter sports facilities in the lead up to the 2022 Winter Olympics," said Chen.

 Shanghai: a hot spot for winter sports

Team Russia performs its Paradise program in the synchronized skating segment during the ISU Shanghai Trophy competition at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center on March 6. Photos by Gao Erqiang / China Daily

 Shanghai: a hot spot for winter sports

Enthusiasm for winter sports is growing rapidly in southern China as evidenced by the turnout at the ISU Shanghai Trophy competition this month.

 Shanghai: a hot spot for winter sports

Skaters perform Return of the Monkey King to the delight of the audience.

 Shanghai: a hot spot for winter sports

China's Wu Dajing leads the pack in the men's 1,000m short-track speed skating race at the ISU Shanghai Trophy.

(China Daily 03/12/2016 page12)

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