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The Inner Mongolia Ice Sports Training Centre has a hockey rink, five curling sheets, a long-track speed-skating oval and a handful of short-track surfaces.The Globe and Mail

Hockey has a history in this distant corner of China, on a vast grassland closer to Siberia than Shanghai. Teams of men and women have strapped on skates here since the 1950s. At one point, local players even tried to assemble a squad for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

But never before have any of them played in a place like the Inner Mongolia Ice Sports Training Centre. Built to evoke wisps of cirrus clouds in the unending flatland sky, its undulating rooflines stand over a hockey rink, five curling sheets, a long-track speed-skating oval and a handful of short-track surfaces.

It cost nearly $200-million, a considerable investment in Hailar, the city with a population of 285,654 where the complex opened last year.

Central planners want to build winter sports into a $155-billion industry by 2022, the year Beijing plays host the Winter Olympics. The country’s leadership has mandated that snow and ice become national playgrounds – for players, profiteers and political grandstanders alike – floods of money have poured into arenas and ski resorts across the country.

The ambition goes well beyond the Winter Games.

China’s leaders have set 2035 as the date by which they want the to be a “strong sporting nation.” To do so requires strength in both winter and summer sports, said Kan Junchang, vice-president of Harbin Sports University. “We cannot have shortcomings,” he said.

At stake is President Xi Jinping’s goal of bringing economic, military and cultural glory to his country. In sports, the aim is for Chinese prowess and “international influence to rank among the top in the world, and for sports to become a symbol of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” declares a 2019 document from the State Council, China’s Cabinet.

In Hailar, that imperative has brought glittering new facilities, some new equipment and, for at least a few, new opportunities. On one recent afternoon, a group of high-school women slapped pucks and darted across the ice during a practice. To build the team, administrators chose competitors from judo and track and field. Almost none could skate. Now, they form one of only three women’s hockey teams in Inner Mongolia, a region the size of Saskatchewan with 25 million people.

“We are promoting the building of ice hockey here in the city, and these kids belong to the first cohort,” said Fu Gao, deputy director of the ice sports training centre.

With the equipment and the facilities now in place, “all that’s left for us is to cultivate the hard-working spirit of the children,” said Zhang Yuming, a coach who has overseen the construction of the hockey program. “We have everything ready. The country has given us all of the support we need. We are fully armed.”

Those armaments have arrived most obviously in a familiar format: a construction boom. Nation-wide, 876 arenas and 644 ski hills now occupy 61 square kilometres, government statistics show. The winter sport imperative has touched every corner of the country. In Shenzhen, developers in November said they had assembled 44 hectares of land for what they have called the “world’s largest indoor snow world,” a $6.5-billion complex complete with shopping and themed hotels. The average January temperature in Shenzhen is 19 C.

Behind the spending lie important political imperatives. China in 2020 declared the abolishment of extreme poverty. “We have fully entered the well-off era, which means we have largely solved poverty and dependence on material things,” said Tan Jianxiang, a professor of sport at South China Normal University.

“So winter sports are extremely valuable in providing a better quality of life for people,” he said.

First, though China’s leadership has to coax – or perhaps order – people onto snow and ice.

Last year, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China called for the mobilization of military and local officials alike in its bid to secure the involvement of campuses, troops, factories, mines, rural areas, communities and families alike, as the country seeks the participation in winter sports by 300 million people, more than a fifth of its population. That mark was set by Mr. Xi.

There is reason to doubt the effectiveness of such mass efforts. Earlier this month, a Renmin University survey estimated that 150 million people had participated in winter sports last season, but only one in five through workplace or community organizations.

China has also defined winter sports broadly. One official document suggests promoting participation in snow tug-of-war, ice fishing and top-spinning – an activity that involves using string to spin tops on ice. Some places have sought to meet participation obligations through building snowmen and snowball fights.

And some of the country’s big numbers mask smaller achievements. For example, the Chinese government has called for the creation of 1,000 ski hills, a number well in excess of Europe. But among those already built, most are basic, according to statistics compiled by the 2019 China Ski Industry White Book. Nearly 80 per cent feature a vertical drop of less than 100 metres; only 3 per cent – just 26 resorts – have a vertical drop of more than 300 metres. Many dozens of buildings in Canada’s cities exceed 100 metres in height.

As China has discovered, too, conjuring a new resort and fostering athletic skill require different approaches.

“We have built many rinks and stadiums in many places. We’ve spent huge amounts of money. But the real question is how do we use these facilities?” said Mr. Kan. “Who will use them? What is the plan to promote sports among children? These practical questions have not been answered yet.”

Take the Inner Mongolia Ice Sports Training Centre. Its arenas bear little resemblance to those in small-town Canada. Security staff bar entry to anyone without official permission to enter. There are no beer-league hockey teams, no community curling nights.

Perhaps the most accessible form of skating in Hailar is at Genghis Khan Square, where retirees in tight-fitting clothes gather to speed skate around an oval demarcated with orange pylons. But the square is concrete and the skates have wheels.

At the ice centre, meanwhile, hockey players and curlers alike form part of specially selected groups. The women’s hockey team follows a modified high-school schedule that allows players to spend half of their day training.

“I want to become a professional athlete,” says Zhang Xinrui, 14, a Boston Bruins fan who plays defence. “Practising as hard as possible is what it will cost for my dream to come true.”

It is already much too late for the ice centre to produce a Chinese Olympian for the Beijing Games. But there are other reasons to pursue sport. In November, China’s central education and sports authorities pledged direct admission to the country’s top universities for athletes who can reach a certain standard. “Our hockey students will have a better chance to attend university in China,” Mr. Fu said.

But even that is no certain bet. Most of those top universities haven’t created channels to recruit athletes, Mr. Kan said, making it “virtually impossible that parents will willingly let their kids take the winter sports path. In most families, the college admission letter is still everything.”

China would do better, he said, to open government-sponsored athletic facilities for free public use, while leaving private companies to offer more professionally managed services.

He is nonetheless optimistic. In decades past, China primarily sought national glory in advocating table tennis and volleyball. Today, the ice and snow push is more inclusive. “We hope that winter sports, can above, all meet the needs of more people and improve the quality of their lives,” he said.

With a report by Alexandra Li

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