This poor Chinese city bet its fortunes on Winter Olympics. Then Covid-19 hit

Zhangjiakou’s National Ski Jumping Centre in the mountains of Chongli district.
Reuters

In 2015, hours before members of the International Olympic Committee were set to cast their votes on the host country of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a televised appearance.

If the Games were held in China, he promised to personally guarantee that they would be “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent”.

But over the past couple of years, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works for these lofty ambitions.

The organising committee has said it will streamline the events, limit spectator numbers and enforce social distancing rules.

Meanwhile, the official description of the host country’s vision for the Games has evolved to “simple, safe, and splendid” – a far cry from Xi’s 2015 comments.

The official host city for the Games is Beijing, but many of the skiing and snowboarding events are taking place in Zhangjiakou, a city in Hebei province some 180km (110 miles) north of the capital.

Zhangjiakou had hoped to use the Games to boost its international profile and transform itself into a leading centre for winter sports and green energy.

The city’s mountainous Chongli district, where the events will take place, was classed as extremely impoverished until May 2019 but it now boasts a string of luxury hotels including international chains, seven ski resorts, two high-speed railway stations and four venues built for the Winter Olympics.

Official figures now show that around one in five of the district’s population of 105,000 people is employed in winter sports related jobs.

“Without the Winter Olympics, Chongli would still be walking slowly and probably would not have got to its current level until three decades later,” said Jia Maoting, general manager of the Olympic Sports Construction and Development Company.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic – coupled with a diplomatic boycott from the US and its allies – has dented the city’s ambitions.

There will be few foreigners apart from athletes and sports officials at the Games, and Beijing has not yet confirmed whether it will allow domestic audiences to attend.

The organising ­committee has already banned spectators from overseas, and last month said anyone who is allowed to attend would be asked not to shout or cheer and restrict their support to hand claps.

Chongli, which welcomed nearly 3 million visitors during the pre-pandemic skiing season between November 2018 to April 2019, will have to close all local ski runs and scenic areas to visitors from Tuesday until March 30 – a fortnight after the Winter Paralympics end.

The local government said in a notice that these “targeted controls” would “safeguard the mega international games”.

Currently, all travellers have to register with the local authorities in advance, show proof of a negative nucleic acid test in the preceding 48 hours and provide travel records for the previous two weeks before being allowed to enter Chongli.

The pandemic has also delayed construction work for the venues, which was still ongoing when the Post visited Chongli in the last few days of December, although the local government had said two years ago that it was confident that everything would be ready by the end of 2021.

The National Cross-Country Skiing Centre in Chongli, which will host the cross-country and Nordic combined events, was about 90 per cent complete according to Li Zhenlong, the venue’s facility manager.

“There were indeed some delays in the schedule, but what we can do was send more workers,” Li said.

When the Games start, only half of the centre’s 2,000 or so seats are expected to be available due to social distancing rules, while standing areas will also be closed, Li said.

“The pandemic is so annoying, it is the public enemy of the world,” Jia said. “Because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, control measures will need to be flexible,” he added.

Apart from some decorations in local parks and the sight of a giant flying-saucer shaped structure in the mountains overlooking Chongli – the newly built National Ski Jumping Centre – the Olympics appears to have had a limited impact on downtown Zhangjiakou.

The city’s economy grew 7.5 per cent during the first three quarters of the year, less than both the national average of 9.8 per cent and the provincial average of 7.7 per cent, official figures showed.

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Still, Jia said there were hopes the Games would make a difference in the longer term.

For instance, the city in the smog-ridden Hebei province was hoping the Games will help it transform into a clean-energy hub.

Organisers are planning to use wind power and stores of rainwater to make artificial snow – typically an energy- and water-intensive process – and many of the construction materials used to build venues can be recycled after the event.

Zhangjiakou also plans to deploy 655 hydrogen-fuelled buses in the competition zone during the event and is running a fleet of 444 of the buses in urban areas, which have carried 62 million passengers so far, according to state media agency Xinhua.

The Zhangjiakou Hydrogen and Renewable Energy Research Institute conducted a joint study with the US Energy Foundation on running hydrogen-fuelled buses in cold areas that proved they could operate effectively in these conditions.

“The result was an indirect boost to Zhangjiakou over the large-scale use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles during the Winter Olympics,” said Wang Hewu, executive director of the institute.

The city has also been working to allow winter sports equipment makers to the Zhangjiakou Ice & Snow Sports Equipment Industrial Park, set up in August 2018 which now houses a major supplier of equipment for the National Hockey League in North America.

Having signed agreements with 48 companies, the industrial park has attracted government investment of around 1.1 billion yuan (S$234 million) so far and 22 companies have settled in, including four foreign companies from France, Italy and Switzerland.

A US snowboard manufacturer has also expressed interest in moving its factory there but the plan still had not fully materialised because of the pandemic, Bai Jianhai, a local official in charge of the industrial park, told reporters during a recent tour.

Despite the uncertainty, Bai said he expected the zone’s output to nearly double by 2025.

“Now we have bigger ideals [than the Winter Olympics] … Our park has begun to plan for the post-Olympic economy,” he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.