The new front-runner to host the 2022 Winter Olympics doesn't have a long winter sports tradition. Then there's the matter of snow, or lack thereof. The mountains near Beijing where Olympic bidders want to hold skiing events receive less than a meter (3 feet) of snow each winter.
But what increasingly matters in the race for the 2022 Games is money, and China has plenty of that. Combined with political will and strong public support, Beijing looks like the strongest bidder left to host an Olympics that few other cities seem to want.
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A year ago, Beijing was considered a long shot to land the 2022 Games, particularly with other Asian countries already lined up to host the next two Olympics — the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
But then public opposition and financial concerns in Europe began whittling the field of candidates one by one. St. Moritz/Davos and Munich dropped proposed bids after they were rejected in referendums in Switzerland and Germany. Stockholm; Krakow, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; and Oslo, Norway, all dropped out of the race.
Suddenly, Beijing is in a two-city race with Almaty, Kazakhstan, another of the early long-shots. The host city will be selected next July at an International Olympic Committee assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Beijing, which hosted the 2008 Olympics, is seeking to become the first city to host both the summer and winter games.
The promotional blitz has already begun. Last Friday, the Beijing bid committee unveiled a Facebook page and Twitter feed and released a video depicting scenes of victorious Chinese athletes at previous Winter Games and an animation of a planned high-speed rail line that will connect venues in the city with those in the mountains in just 50 minutes.
Public opinion in some European cities turned against bidding for the Olympics in light of the $51 billion price tag associated with the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. While the operational costs were in line with previous games, Russia built all its venues from scratch and spent heavily on long-term infrastructure projects.
The Beijing bid committee notes on its website that "these are not problems for us."
"We have strong political support, economic strength, the public support of hundreds of millions and a stable domestic situation," the committee wrote in an editorial republished on Chinese sports websites. "These are precisely what a host city for the Winter Olympics should have."
The Winter Olympics should also have snow, and this is one of the major challenges for the mountains northwest of Beijing, where Alpine skiing events would be held, and the mountains near the city of Zhangjiakou, the proposed site for Nordic skiing.
"The winters are extremely cold and extremely dry," said Fabio Ries, the Italian co-founder of the Duolemeidi Mountain Resort, which opened near Zhangjiakou in 2006. "When it snows, the landscape is white, basically for the whole winter. But the snow coverage itself is pretty poor."
Ries said none of the ski resorts in the area could operate without man-made snow, but this presents another problem: a severe water shortage in northern China that ski resorts have been blamed for exacerbating. Friends of Nature, an environmental NGO, estimated in a 2011 report that the 17 resorts use at least 1 million tons of water every year — the equivalent of 8,300 households.
"Beijing has been so dry in recent years, the ski resorts must draw water from underground reserves," said Li Xiang, associate editor in chief of the Friends of Nature report. "It's a very big waste."
Another concern is Beijing's notorious air pollution. Although the government successfully cleared the skies for the 2008 Olympics by closing factories and enacting severe traffic restrictions, pollution has been a concern at other sports events in recent years.
During the recent Tour of Beijing cycling race, one of the mountain stages had to be shortened. Before a Brazil vs. Argentina soccer friendly, Brazil players were ordered to stay in their hotel except for training sessions. The smog was so bad at an LPGA tournament last year that some golfers wore face masks on the course.
The Beijing bid committee played down the concerns, blaming foreigners for creating the mocking nickname "gray Beijing."
"Although it's said in jest, it's worthy of reflection," it said. "But linking the haze to the Winter Olympics in a negative way exaggerates the problem."
China has become a force at recent Winter Games in figure skating, short-track and speed skating and freestyle skiing. In other sports, though, it lags far behind. In Sochi, only two Chinese athletes qualified in Alpine skiing and their best result was Xia Lina's next-to-last-place finish in the women's giant slalom. The Chinese didn't fare much better in biathlon or cross-country skiing.
"In certain sports, we do have a strong presence, but in other sports, there's a huge gap. You can't name a downhill skier and there's not even a bobsled team," said Li Sheng, founder and CEO of SECA Worldwide, a Shanghai-based sports marketing company that has worked with the Chinese Olympic Committee and Chinese Winter Sports Federation.
Though participation rates in sports such as Alpine skiing and ice hockey are still relatively low compared with some countries, they are growing quickly as the Chinese middle class expands. According to the Chinese Ski Association, there were fewer than 10,000 skiers in the country in 1996; estimates now put that number above 5 million.
Li believes these numbers could spike if Beijing gets the 2022 Games. Already, he said, the highway to Zhangjiakou is jammed on Friday afternoons in winter with Beijing residents going away for ski weekends. On the day Beijing submitted its Olympic bid, Li estimated condo prices in the resort area rose by 100,000 renminbi (US $16,300).
"I think 2022 will definitely help change a generation by promoting winter sports in a way that only a Winter Olympics can," Li said. "The big challenge is how to embrace that opportunity."
Associated Press researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.