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How the Winter Olympics are being received in China

Wang Jianzhi, shown here burnishing a pair of ice skates, runs a famous blade sharpening shop in Beijing near Houhai, a frozen lake popular among outdoor skaters.
Aowen Cao
/
NPR
Wang Jianzhi, shown here burnishing a pair of ice skates, runs a famous blade sharpening shop in Beijing near Houhai, a frozen lake popular among outdoor skaters.

BEIJING — The day of the Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony began clear and brilliantly sunny — a change from the choking smog linked to the city's coal-fired winter heating system, which permeated Beijing the week earlier.

Under the bright blue skies, Wang Jianzhi burnishes a pair of ice skates. He runs a famous blade sharpening shop near Houhai, a frozen lake popular among outdoor skaters. Yet Wang says he has no plans to watch the Olympics at all.

"I get busy during the winter season," he says. "Where should I get the time to watch Olympic figure skating?"

His indifference is a marked departure from the raucous anticipation leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which Beijing also hosted.

"Back in 2008, the air was thick with excitement. This time around, whether it's because people don't understand winter sports in China or what, the atmosphere has been much blander, with barely any publicity about the Games," says Yu Xianguo, a rickshaw driver and a self-proclaimed sports enthusiast.

David Peng, a regular ice skater at Houhai Lake, defended Beijing's choice to host its second Games: "Hosting the Olympics has improved China's winter sports infrastructure. It boosts China's international influence, especially if it can manage the Games well during a pandemic."

But asked whether he will actually watch any of the Games, he says no: "People of my generation value ability, not their outfits or fancy equipment. If you can't skate or ski well, you're not worth my time."

Houhai is a frozen lake used by outdoor skaters — and swimmers.
Aowen Cao / NPR
/
NPR
Houhai is a frozen lake used by outdoor skaters — and swimmers. A dip in freezing waters is thought by some in Beijing to prevent colds.

China is strongest in summer Olympic sports, such as weightlifting and diving. It has struggled to catch up to European countries with a long history of winter sports. In total, China has won 13 gold medals at Winter Games compared with a staggering 262 golds it has collected during Summer Games.

To bolster its chances at winning more medals, China has recruited more than two dozen foreign-born athletes to compete under the Chinese flag, plucked Chinese athletes from other disciplines to become winter athletes and invested heavily in winter sports facilities.

Since it won the Winter Games bid seven years ago, China's National Bureau of Statistics says the country has somehow persuaded 346 million people to become winter sports enthusiasts, in the hopes of nurturing a future generation of Olympians.

Retiree Meng Zhaoyin is one of these new enthusiasts. NPR met her on the edge of Houhai Lake, where she has chipped away the thick ice to swim in the freezing water, a popular Beijing pastime thought to prevent colds.

The city government encouraged her to pick up skiing in 2019. "Our political leaders supported us, paid for all our trainers, and we get discounted tickets to the ski slopes," she says. "I was terrified at first, but I persevered for the sake of contributing to the Olympic Games."

Now, Meng is part of the Beijing amateur ski team established in 2019 for seniors, which has been heavily featured in state television in the runup to the Games.

"We have about 100 members, but in reality, those who actually know how to ski number only about 20 people," she admits.

Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.