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
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.
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  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.
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