BEIJING — A clear, bright day marked the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games. This was a welcome change from the thickening smog caused by Beijing’s coal-fired winter heating.

Wang Jianzhi polishes his pair of ice skates under the clear blue sky. A famous blade-sharpening shop is located near Houhai. This frozen lake is a favorite spot for outdoor skaters. Wang claims he doesn’t plan to watch the Olympics.

He says, “I get very busy during winter season.” “Where can I find the time to watch Olympic figure skate?”

His indifference marks a departure from the noisy anticipation leading to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games which Beijing also hosted.

“Back in 2008 there was excitement. Whether it’s because Chinese winter sports aren’t understood or not, this time the atmosphere is much more bland,” Yu Xianguo (a rickshaw driver who is also a sports enthusiast) says.

David Peng, an ice skater on Houhai Lake, supported Beijing’s decision to host the Olympics. “Hosting Olympics has improved China’s winter sports infrastructure.” It increases China’s international reach, especially if the Games can be managed well during a pandemic.
When asked if he would actually be able to watch any Games, he said no. “People my age value their ability, not their fancy equipment.” If you can’t skate or ski well, you’re not worth my time.”

China is the strongest country in summer Olympic sports like weightlifting or diving. It has not been able to catch up with European countries that have a long history in winter sports. China has won 13 Gold Medals at Winter Games, compared to the staggering 262 golds it collected during Summer Games.

China has drafted more than twenty-six foreign-born athletes to compete under its flag. It also plucked Chinese athletes from other disciplines in order to be winter athletes. China is investing heavily in winter sports facilities to increase its chances of winning more medals.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics claims that since winning the bid for the Winter Games seven years ago, 346 million Chinese have become winter sports fans in an effort to foster a future generation of Olympians.

Meng Zhaoyin, a retired woman, is one of these new fans. NPR met her at the Houhai Lake edge, where she had removed the thick ice and swam in the freezing water. This is a Beijing tradition thought to help prevent colds.

She was encouraged by the city government to take up skiing in 2019. She says, “Our political leaders supported and paid for all our trainers. We also get discounted tickets to ski slopes.” “I was scared at first but I persevered to contribute to the Olympic Games.”

Meng now is part of Beijing’s amateur ski team, established in 2019 for seniors. It has been heavily highlighted on state television during the Games.

She admits that although there are about 100 members, the actual skiers and snowboarders number around 20.