As Olympic skiers and snowboarders bust out daredevil moves down a 60-meter ski ramp in the Beijing Winter Games this week, viewers were treated to the sight of an unusual backdrop: drab industrial structures that some have mistakenly called nuclear plants.
The curious juxtaposition—no help from the harsh winter landscape—has become such a talking point that Big Air Shougang, a stadium on the outskirts of Beijing, is now the subject of mockery on social media. Viral tweets about the site, some accompanied by a desaturated aerial photo of its surroundings, describe it as a “hellscape” and “dystopian.”
But athletes and an architect who spoke with VICE World News have had a very different view of the big air venue, now a permanent sports stadium converted from the remnants of a defunct steel mill.
“So much of modern Olympics Games has to do with industry. And so many skis and snowboards used in these Olympics come out of Chinese factories. It’s a reminder of this tight link, even if this particular factory is no longer in use,” said François Blanciak, associate professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore.
While the steel mill was shut down more than a decade ago to clear the air for the 2008 Summer Olympics, its cooling towers have remained intact. Now featuring the Beijing 2022 logo along their cylindrical walls, the towers serve an industrial vibe to the Winter Olympics’ big air events.
“When you click into your skis at the top of the jump, it's a very bizarre view looking down on this monster of a jump with industrial Beijing in the background,” New Zealand freestyle skier Ben Barclay told VICE World News, adding that the set-up made for great photos.
“This one in Beijing is just as good, if not better, than most jumps we ski at resorts with natural snow. It’s built and maintained at an incredible standard.”
Eileen Gu, the U.S.-born freestyle skier who bagged a big air gold for China on Tuesday, shared similar sentiments. “The venue is fantastic,” the 18-year-old told reporters in Beijing. “Look around, there is no snow anywhere else yet somehow when you’re skiing on this jump you feel like you’re on a glacier somewhere.”
And French skier Antoine Adelisse told Reuters: “The first time I was on the top I was a bit disappointed, because when we’re at the top we usually see lots of mountains. But when the lights get on, it’s really amazing.”
According to its designer Zhang Shunjie, the Big Air Shougang ski jump is inspired by Dunhuang frescoes, a famed ancient art form found in the Mogao Caves of northwestern China.
It is the first permanent venue for big air events in the world, and one of a few new venues built for the 2022 Games. Beijing—the only city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter events—reused other venues including the stadiums called Bird’s Nest and Ice Cube (formerly Water Cube).
Aesthetics aside, the choice of Beijing as the host of the Winter Games has been bombarded with criticism for reasons both political and environmental.
The Beijing Games is the first Winter Olympics to rely entirely on fake snow. The snow in the last two Games, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Sochi, Russia, was up to 98 percent and 80 percent fake, respectively. This trend could continue as climate change could decimate the number of cities that could viably host the Winter Games.
Making artificial powder requires a huge amount of water, and the Chinese capital had been chronically water-scarce even before preparation for the Winter Games got underway, due to droughts and human factors.
Before the 2008 Summer Games, thousands of farmers from adjacent Hebei province were forced to turn 6,800 hectares of rice paddies into cornfields to save water for Beijing.
The cooling towers in Shougang, now defunct accessories to the world famous big air facility, remain as evidence of China’s fervent campaign to clean up Beijing’s air for the 2008 Summer Olympics. But these anti-pollution efforts have been found to worsen pollution in surrounding regions, effectively shifting the burdens of pollution to less developed neighbors who don’t have the luxury of hosting an international sporting extravaganza.
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