Sochi to Beijing?

By all accounts the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia was a big success.  I’m not quite sure how one measures such things but it certainly feels like everyone is pretty satisfied, as well they should be.

For those Americans who were school children at the height of the Cold War Sochi didn't look at all like the Soviet Union the adults described to us.
For those Americans who were school children at the height of the Cold War Sochi didn’t look at all like the Soviet Union the adults described to us.

For those of us who grew up in the U.S. during the height of the Cold War we certainly saw a Russia that didn’t look anything like the Russia described to us as we huddled under our school desks waiting for the Soviets to rain nuclear annihilation on our huddled bodies, as the adults seemed convinced they were anxious to do.  (Given the lack of protection a school desk would provide in the event of an actual nuclear detonation one has to wonder why the school children weren’t simply kept in ignorant bliss.  Was the exercise meant to be ‘protective’ or ‘educational’?)

China, of course, has not yet achieved its usual athletic powerhouse status at the Winter Olympics and actually finished with fewer medals this time around than in Vancouver four years ago.  Still, China finished with a respectable 9 medals, 11th in the total medal standings, and the best showing in Southeast Asia, one ahead of Korea, host to the next 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and Japan.

CCTV 5, the state-owned television channel devoted to 24/7 sports, gave broad exposure to the event, and close to 200 million Chinese tuned in, according to statistics.  That’s not exactly a ‘hit’ by the mega-standards of Chinese television (The reality show, Where Are We Going, Dad? has more than 600 million viewers each week, according to The Atlantic.), but respectable for a collection of sports that all but a handful of Chinese have ever witnessed in person, much less participated in.  (I wonder, in fact, how many people from any country have ever witnessed a biathlon or curling match outside of the Olympics.)

The China men's curling team made it to the bronze medal game - the country's best finish ever.
The Chinese men’s curling team made it to the bronze medal game – the country’s best finish ever.

To be fair, the timing for the Games could not have been worse in terms of Chinese enthusiasm, coming as they did on the heels of Spring Festival.  The economy was still awakening from its New Year slumber and many children had not yet returned to school.

Still, President Xi is a strong advocate of the importance of athletics to the development of the Chinese people and the modern Chinese way of life.  It could be that the President is merely a sports enthusiast but I suspect he appreciates the health value of sport and genuinely wants to help prepare society for a life of more discretionary income and free time.

The government, of course, is also interested in garnering respect for itself and its people.  And it feels a certain sense of obligation to behave like the financial and political superpower that it is.

And not surprisingly it set out to do so at the Olympics using the same formula it did to build the world’s second largest economy – infrastructure, foreign expertise, and hard work.  A total of 10 foreign coaches worked with the Chinese national teams, including Canadian curler Marcel Rocque, with three world championships to his credit as a player, who took the Chinese women’s curling team into the round robin and the men into the bronze medal game after only 10 months at the helm.  It was the best showing ever by the Chinese in the event.

China is a powerhouse in short track skating.
China is a powerhouse in short track skating where the ability to maneuver in traffic is a must.

China has been particularly successful in short track skating, of course, which accounted for 2/3 of its medals this year and has provided 7 of the 9 gold medals earned at the Winter Olympics in modern times.  This is no surprise to me, frankly, since short track skating reminds me very much of the dynamics of getting around a traffic roundabout in congested Beijing.  And some of the maneuvering tactics employed, I’m convinced, were borrowed from the art of getting to the front of the queue at a crowded checkout counter in China.  (No slight intended as to the athleticism, dedication, and skill of the athletes involved.  They’re awesome.)

Mengtao Xu and Zongyang Jia (Xu Mentao and Jia Zongyang in China), moreover, won silver and bronze medals, respectively, in ladies’ and men’s aerial freestyle.  (I don’t know why they refer to it as the ladies’ freestyle instead of the women’s freestyle, but I defer to the official website.)  And Zhang Hong made history when she took gold in the 1000m speed skating event, the country’s first gold medal in the iconic Olympic sport.

There are several ski areas within Beijing itself.  It's not the Alps but there are serious mountains a 2-3 hour drive away.
There are several ski areas within Beijing itself. It’s not the Alps but there are serious mountains a 2-3 hour drive away.

China, of course, wants to take its participation in the Winter Olympics one step further, as it inevitably does, and is in the hunt to host the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in 2022.  It’s a joint bid between and Beijing and neighboring Zhangjiakou and we can assume it’s a serious bid indeed.  I don’t doubt for a minute that they can pull it off and I’m sure it would prove to be one of the most spectacular events ever held.

I don’t believe, however, that hosting the Winter Olympics has yet garnered the same level of popular support that the 2008 Summer Olympics did.  They cost a lot of money, the Olympic Games, and anyone living in Beijing surely wants to see the government solve the air pollution problem before it even thinks about devoting valuable resources to anything else.  (Beijing was shrouded in pollution this past week, forcing the government to declare a level orange air quality emergency – the second highest level – for the first time since the emergency system was enacted last October.)

I’m not sure, however, that’s not the ticket to the clean air we’re all looking for.  I would bet dollars to donuts that if Beijing were to host the 2022 Winter Olympics the world would be welcomed by blue skies and lily-white snow.

While I would enjoy being in Beijing for the event just as much as I enjoyed being here in 2008, however, I must admit slight trepidation at the thought of the Chinese hosting the Olympic Alpine events, having taken my own daughters skiing in China for the first time a few weeks ago.

This Beijing ski area even boasts a traditional European clock tower.
This Beijing ski area even boasts a traditional European clock tower.

A lifelong skier I was thrilled when they first expressed an interest and pleasantly surprised when I began to investigate and discovered that there are several ski areas within driving distance of Beijing.  And when we arrived at the one we finally settled on we all nodded in approval at the general look and feel of the slopes and facilities, modeled as they apparently are after some unnamed Alpine village, complete with clock tower.

The rental process was quick and efficient, but with Chinese characteristics, reminding me once again that there are no lawyers here – at least not of the personal injury variety.   Pragmatic as always, the rental process is organized by shoe size.   There are no release of liability forms to sign as there is no liability to begin with.  You have only to find the counter offering your shoe size and there you will be handed a pair of boots with skis pre-fitted to match.  Someone has already decided what length of ski goes with what size foot and the bindings are pre-set to some universal setting chosen, apparently, without regard to weight or skiing ability.  How else could you process so many skiers in the amount of time the high-urgency Chinese are willing to devote to such things?

And then, of course, there were the lift lines.  Or ‘no-lines’, as it were.  Just an opening and a sea of people all attempting to crowd through at the same time (think the last turn of a 6-person short track skating competition), a picture of congestion further enhanced by the fact that most of the snowboarders dismount their boards, apparently in an effort to enhance their ability to squeeze past the skiers waiting for a lift up the slope.

To be expected, for sure.  Remember that process issue I keep talking about.  Many Chinese just don’t understand the idea of queuing.  It truly is a foreign concept.

The beginner slopes are always a place to exercise caution.  (To be fair, this is snow, not smog.)
The beginner slopes are always a place to exercise caution. (To be fair, this is snow, not smog.)

My expectations realized, however, my dormant fear likewise came to life as I watched a teenage boy slam into my youngest daughter at the bottom of the bunny slope.  He apparently had never skied before, strapped the skis on and pointed them down the fall line, pushed off, and then began to wonder how we was going to stop.  Why he chose my daughter, who was no more than one-half his size and standing quietly out of the way, I can’t say.

Such events, of course, occur on beginner slopes all over the world with some regularity.  What dismayed me, however, was how little the numerous Ski Patrol officials standing nearby in their very official-looking jackets seemed to care.  One of them casually asked if my daughter was okay but didn’t make any effort to tutor or discipline the lad who could have caused her serious injury.  A gentle reminder, I’m afraid, that in their urgency to adopt world-class practices the Chinese sometimes fail to grasp the deeper purpose involved.

All told, however, we had a delightful day on the slopes.  And, as always, it helped to make winter feel just a tad shorter.

And then, as noted, the thick fog of pollution rolled in, the blue skies of Sochi seemed a dream away, and winter suddenly feels like it will drag on forever once again.

Alas, Beijing has been shrouded in an orange-level smog emergency for most of the past week.
Alas, Beijing has been shrouded in an orange-level smog emergency for most of the past week, making it feel like a long winter once again.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.