Win­ter Sports: On Thin Ice

Spurred by host­ing the 2022 Win­ter Olympics and the com­mer­cial po­ten­tial of ice sports, Chi­nese in­vest­ment is pour­ing into ice rinks. But tech­nol­ogy and tal­ent are still miss­ing

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Qian Wei

Three enor­mous “white bub­bles” stick out, break­ing the monotony of the gray box-like build­ings around them in the western Bei­jing sub­urb of Shi­jing­shan. This is the Civic Ice Sports Cen­ter, the first in­door ice rink in the area, which opened in May 2017. De­spite the sum­mer va­ca­tion, there were only a hand­ful of chil­dren train­ing at the rink.

“The sum­mer va­ca­tion is the off sea­son, since many chil­dren travel with their par­ents... The busy peak is dur­ing the af­ter­noons and nights of or­di­nary days,” Song Gang, vice-pres­i­dent of Tus-ice & Snow Group, which built the rink, told Newschina, show­ing off a pic­ture of the ad­ja­cent park­ing lot full of cars.

In the past, Bei­jing's ice rinks were con­cen­trated in the down­town Chaoyang and north­west Haid­ian dis­tricts. But as soon as Shi­jing­shan was des­ig­nated as the lo­ca­tion of the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee of the 2022 Bei­jing Win­ter Olympic Games, the district gov­ern­ment de­cided to build 10 ice rinks be­fore 2020. Be­sides the Civic Ice Sports Cen­ter, an­other four have just been com­pleted and will be used as train­ing venues for the Chi­nese na­tional teams of short-track speed skat­ing, fig­ure skat­ing, ice hockey and curl­ing.

In Jan­uary 2015 when China sub­mit­ted its ap­pli­ca­tion to host the 2022 Win­ter Olympic Games, it pledged to pro­mote ice sports to the ex­tent that a stag­ger­ing 300 mil­lion na­tion­als would par­tic­i­pate in them. Fol­low­ing the suc­cess­ful bid, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is­sued an ar­ray of doc­u­ments to ful­fill this prom­ise, and build­ing new rinks turned out to be a cru­cial part, given that China had few suit­able rinks at the time. Experts say China will need some 3,000 rinks to meet the needs of the 300 mil­lion ice sports par­tic­i­pants, but they also warn it could take 20-25 years to build and sup­port such a huge num­ber, far longer than the four or five years be­tween now and the Win­ter Olympic Games.

Un­frozen Rinks

It was in 2008 that Tong Wei, a for­mer busi­ness­man who works in film pro­duc­tion, de­cided to move into the ice rink in­dus­try. That year, China suc­cess­fully hosted a “truly ex­cep­tional” Olympic Games in the words of then-in­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) pres­i­dent Jac­ques Rogge. China's GDP also sur­passed Ja­pan's for the first time, be­com­ing the world's sec­ond high­est. Tong said ice sports, which are pop­u­lar in de­vel­oped coun­tries, would quickly rise in China along­side its fast eco­nomic growth.

Tong then did thor­ough mar­ket re­search on Chi­nese rinks and found that China had few that met in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, and most of the ex­ist­ing ones were ei­ther closed for much of the year, or had al­ready shifted to other busi­nesses due to high oper­at­ing costs.

“Huge power costs have dis­abled many rinks. We had to pay a lot of ‘freez­ing fees' to lo­cal rinks when we went to North China for train­ing,” Yu Tiande, for­mer hockey di­rec­tor of the Win­ter Sports Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sport of China, told Newschina. “For a long time, Chi­nese rinks were left idle, since few op­er­a­tors had enough money to sup­port a rink,” he added.

Yu used the speed-skat­ing venue built be­side the Cap­i­tal Gym­na­sium in 1990 as an ex­am­ple. Ac­cord­ing to him, the rink was part of gov­ern­ment ef­forts to pro­mote di­verse sports as they were to host the 1990 Asian Games. By the time the venue was fi­nally torn down, the rink had only been frozen for use three times. “It was too costly to freeze the rink. The re­frig­er­a­tors alone cost around 6,000 yuan a day [US$1,200 based on the ex­change rate then],” Yu said. “We once in­vited Ja­pan to the venue, only to find that they did not be­lieve that China, with a GDP lower than Ja­pan, could af­ford to even use a rink. Ja­pan was wise enough to send their ath­letes abroad for train­ing. That was much more cost-ef­fec­tive,” he added.

Com­mer­cial and pri­vate rinks were in worse shape. Ac­cord­ing to a study by Zhong Lili, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Shan­dong Sport

Uni­ver­sity, the rink built by to­bacco gi­ant Hongta Group, the first in Kun­ming, cap­i­tal of South­west China's Yun­nan Prov­ince, was sus­pended in 2013 when the con­denser pipes and ice ma­chines broke down. A per­son in charge of the rink ap­par­ently told Zhong that the main­te­nance cost more than build­ing a new one, and they could af­ford nei­ther. The rink's 2012 bal­ance sheet showed that power bills alone amounted to 1.83 mil­lion yuan (US$290,000), while the rink's an­nual rev­enue was only 785,000 yuan (US$124,603).

Ac­cord­ing to Zhong's study re­port, pub­lished in 2016, few rinks said they had made a profit and around 30 had closed in re­cent years, a fig­ure Zhong pre­dicts will con­tinue to rise.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has ac­tu­ally tried to pro­mote ice sports since the 1980s when it pro­posed mov­ing north­ern rinks to the south. The strat­egy, how­ever, did not take ef­fect un­til the past decade. Tong Wei at­trib­uted the slow de­vel­op­ment to GDP per capita. He claims peo­ple do not care about sports un­til their coun­try's GDP per capita reaches US$5,000, and that ice sports do not be­come pop­u­lar un­til a coun­try's GDP per capita reaches US$10,000. In 2017, China's GDP per capita hit US$8,000.

“Cur­rently, ice sports on the main­land are still viewed as an elite sport for rich peo­ple,” Tong said.

Out of the Cold

The com­ing Win­ter Olympic Games, how­ever, are ex­pected to has­ten the process. To de­liver on their pledge to pop­u­lar­ize ice sports among at least 300 mil­lion na­tion­als, the gov­ern­ment is­sued an ar­ray of doc­u­ments en­cour­ag­ing ice sports, and one of them states that China should pos­sess no less than 650 rinks be­fore 2022, in­clud­ing at least 500 newly-built ones.

In­sid­ers say the in­dus­try grew quickly af­ter that. Yang Yi­fan, the deputy sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the China As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­frig­er­a­tion, for ex­am­ple, told Newschina that while his work once fo­cused on cold stor­age and air con­di­tion­ers, in the past two years in­quiries about re­frig­er­a­tion of ice rinks have grown sig­nif­i­cantly.

“Rinks are pop­ping up all over the coun­try, and Bei­jing is see­ing ex­plo­sive growth,” Fan Jun, founder of Cen­tu­rys­tar, a Bei­jing-based skat­ing club, told Newschina.

Ac­cord­ing to Bei­jing's 2016 guid­ance doc­u­ment on pro­mot­ing ice sports, every district of Bei­jing must build a new rink with an area no less than 1,800 square me­ters by 2022, and at that time, Bei­jing plans to have a to­tal of 36 in­door rinks.

Bei­jing al­ready has 66 rinks al­ready, nearly half of which oc­cupy an area of 1,560 square me­ters (the stan­dard of North Amer­ica's Na­tional Hockey League)

or 1,800 square me­ters (the Olympic stan­dard).

Un­like or­di­nary rinks, the Civic Ice sports Cen­ter in Bei­jing's Shi­jing­shan district is an air-film struc­ture, which is de­fined by the district gov­ern­ment as a “sur­face at­tach­ment.”

“It's a brand-new type of struc­ture which is even ex­cluded from the gov­ern­ment def­i­ni­tions of build­ing cat­e­gories,” said Vi­cepres­i­dent Song Gang. “The struc­ture's main pur­pose is to save costs. If the rinks were built as or­di­nary build­ings, they would not have been ap­proved so quickly, given China's com­plex for­mal­i­ties for com­mer­cial land use... The new struc­ture doesn't need a spe­cific type of land for con­struc­tion, it was quick and cheap to build,” he said.

It should be noted that since the new struc­ture is not cov­ered by any pre­vail­ing man­age­ment reg­u­la­tions, the rinks could not have come to be with­out gov­ern­ment sup­port.

“We should thank the Shi­jing­shan gov­ern­ment for sup­port­ing build­ing the rinks. They were coura­geous to take this risk and gave us op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he told Newschina. Song re­vealed that as a State-owned en­ter­prise, his com­pany keeps a good re­la­tion­ship with the gov­ern­ment, which has paved the way for them to build rinks. But he then em­pha­sized that such rinks cater well to the gov­ern­ment's de­mand for the rapid de­vel­op­ment of ice sports.

Fol­low­ing the Civic Ice sports Cen­ter, Tus-ice & Snow Group built an­other rink in the trop­i­cal coastal city of Sanya, Hainan Prov­ince. Song said many cities have con­tacted him about rinks, and some lo­cal gov­ern­ments have sig­naled they in­tend to di­rectly in­vest in de­vel­op­ing some. While Song ad­mit­ted it gen­er­ally takes six or seven years to re­cover the cost of a rink, he is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture, con­sid­er­ing the prom­ise of the gov­ern­ment doc­u­ment.

Tus-ice & Snow Group is only one ex­am­ple of the nu­mer­ous en­ter­prises emerg­ing now. Bei­jing-based Ice World Sport has pro­posed build­ing 100 rinks by 2020. Olym­pjoy Ice & Snow Sports Tourism, un­der Aus­trian com­pany AST, an­nounced plans to build 1,000 mo­bile rinks in China within the next decade. China Re­sources Group claimed they would equip every new shop­ping mall with a rink.

“When China won the bid to host the [2022] Win­ter Olympic Games, I felt glad that I had taken the lead in the rink in­dus­try, but now, it seems ev­ery­one has flooded in,” busi­ness­man Tong Wei said. “They might have been en­gaged in air con­di­tion­ing, cold stor­age or sewage be­fore, and some had no rel­e­vant ex­pe­ri­ence at all. Any­one who had a project in hand could en­ter the in­dus­try. It has turned from a ‘blue ocean' to a ‘red ocean,'” he added.

Cold Water

Guy Evon Cloutier, the pres­i­dent of a Cana­dian ice sports fa­cil­ity com­pany and also the vice-pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional League of Am­mo­nia Re­frig­er­a­tion's Asian Branch, how­ever, poured cold water on the craze. As one of the peo­ple in charge of build­ing Bei­jing's first in­door rink in 1999, Cloutier ex­pe­ri­enced the hard­ship of open­ing and ex­pand­ing the Chi­nese rink mar­ket in the last decade, and he is now very doubt­ful about the in­dus­try's “overnight” boom. Given the US and Canada have both spent four to five decades de­vel­op­ing na­tional rinks to their cur­rent scale, he says it is im­prac­ti­cal for China to build sev­eral hun­dred new rinks in just four years.

This view was echoed by Deng Gang, a rink tech­ni­cian with the Win­ter Sports Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sport of China. He told Newschina that most Chi­nese rinks have to im­port equip­ment like ice sweep­ers and sprin­klers to sup­port them, and tech­ni­cians like him are in con­stant de­mand.

Vis­it­ing a new curl­ing venue in Bei­jing's Shi­jing­shan District, our reporter found that the rink there had large dis­col­ored ar­eas with water seep­ing in from the edges. Zhang Ming, an em­ployee of the rink, told NewsChina that the dis­col­oration and ponds were caused by poor de­hu­mid­i­fi­ca­tion.

“The heavy hu­mid­ity causes the beams to drip and the ice to melt. In severe cases, it feels like we need an um­brella in the venue,” he said. “It's a prob­lem for many do­mes­tic rinks... We have few tech­ni­cians to give de­sign in­struc­tions and many rinks are re­luc­tant to switch on the de­hu­mid­i­fiers, given the cost,” he added.

Tong Wei agreed, re­veal­ing that many rinks have at­tempted to save money by re­duc­ing the thick­ness of the ice or rais­ing the tem­per­a­ture, which has caused the ice to be softer than needed.

“China's small num­ber of [past] rinks and un­der­de­vel­oped ice sports have led it to lag far be­hind in de­sign­ing, build­ing and oper­at­ing rinks... Due to bad pipe de­sign, for ex­am­ple, many do­mes­tic rinks can­not reach the re­quired tem­per­a­ture at their edges,” Yang Yi­fan told Newschina.

“Due to poor de­sign and man­age­ment, the power con­sump­tion of some do­mes­tic rinks is of­ten 20 times higher than that of a for­eign rink,” Zhang Ming said.

Re­frig­er­ants are an­other big headache for do­mes­tic rinks. Since am­mo­nia can ex­plode if it leaks into the air, many rink man­agers have cho­sen the more sta­ble Freon as a re­frig­er­ant. But the chlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bons from Freon are known to ex­ac­er­bate the im­pact of cli­mate change, and this has at­tracted great concern from the United Na­tions. At the 2016 Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties of the Mon­treal Pro­to­col on Sub­stances that De­plete the Ozone Layer, HFC, a type of Freon, was listed as a chem­i­cal to be elim­i­nated from com­mer­cial use, with the de­vel­oped coun­tries re­quired to cut down its use from 2019, and China from 2029.

The type of re­frig­er­ant is of great im­por­tance to the fu­ture op­er­a­tion of a rink, espe­cially those de­signed for Olympic use like the Ice Rib­bon, China's new na­tional speed skat­ing venue built for the 2022 Win­ter Games.

Dur­ing the 2018 Win­ter Olympic Games, South Korea was crit­i­cized for us­ing HFC as the re­frig­er­ant for all its rinks, and if the Ice Rib­bon fol­lows, the crit­i­cism will be louder, given grow­ing concern about global warm­ing. Worse, the rink might have to be re­built years later when it fails the harsher fu­ture re­quire­ments of in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions. Although some in­sid­ers ar­gue that cur­rently, it is hard to find a per­fect sub­sti­tute for HFC, oth­ers be­lieve that venues for the Olympic Games should be a model for the use of ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy to re­duce emis­sions.

“HFC is not the most en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly re­frig­er­ant. More­over, we could use other ad­vanced re­new­able en­ergy tech­nolo­gies to re­duce to­tal car­bon emis­sions,” said Hu Min, di­rec­tor of the low-car­bon emis­sion de­part­ment of the non-gov­ern­men­tal En­ergy Foun­da­tion.

The thing is, ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy is not easy to come by for many Chi­nese com­pa­nies. “Ex­ist­ing re­frig­er­ants all have short­com­ings and the per­fect so­lu­tion is to de­velop a new-gen­er­a­tion re­frig­er­ant which is safe, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and ef­fi­cient. How­ever, no do­mes­tic com­pa­nies are ca­pa­ble of do­ing that,” said Yang Yi­fan.

Ac­cord­ing to Yang, many for­eign rinks have adopted ad­vanced in­di­rect re­frig­er­a­tion with non-pol­lut­ing am­mo­nia in which am­mo­nia's risk of leak­ing into the air is min­i­mized. Such tech­nol­ogy, how­ever, is not within reach of Chi­nese do­mes­tic com­pa­nies. “Dur­ing a busi­ness visit to Ja­pan last year, I found a Ja­panese rink com­pany had im­proved its re­frig­er­a­tion sys­tem so much that it had re­duced the use of am­mo­nia to an in­cred­i­bly low level. That means the risks of am­mo­nia were also min­i­mized. How­ever, in China, de­vel­op­ment of the in­dus­try and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing work­force – tech­ni­cians and man­agers – is far be­hind,” he said.

“Ur­ban plan­ners and man­agers should think over how many rinks a city re­ally needs and how much the rinks will be used. It is good to de­velop ice sports, but we should keep the de­vel­op­ment at a rea­son­able pace rather than [blindly] rush­ing [to an ob­jec­tive],” he added.

A coach ex­plains ice hockey tech­niques to his trainees, Au­gust 30, Haid­ian District, Bei­jing

Ice hockey play­ers in a train­ing ses­sion on an in­door ice rink, Wuhan, Hubei Prov­ince

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