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China's Olympic Games kick off Friday but in Beijing the atmosphere is lukewarm


The Winter Olympic Games begin on Friday, but in Beijing, the host city, people seem kind of lukewarm about it. NPR's Emily Feng asked why.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Wang Jianzhi (ph) burnishes a pair of ice skates. He runs a famous blade sharpening shop near Houhai, a frozen lake popular among outdoor skaters. Yet Wang says he has no plans to watch the Olympics at all.

WANG JIANZHI: (Through interpreter) I get busy during the winter season. Where should I get the time to watch Olympic figure skating?

FENG: Sixty-two-year-old David Peng is getting his skates sharpened at Mr. Wang's and jumps in.

DAVID PENG: (Through interpreter) Hosting the Olympics has improved China's winter sports infrastructure. It boosts China's international influence, especially if it can manage the Games well during a pandemic.

FENG: But asked if he'll actually watch any of the Games, he says no.

PENG: (Through interpreter) People of my generation value ability, not their outfits or fancy equipment. If you can't skate or ski well, you're not worth my time.

FENG: Rickshaw driver Yu Xianguo agrees. He's a sports enthusiast, but he's realistic about China's prospects this Winter Games.

YU XIANGUO: (Through interpreter) I think we have an 80% chance of winning two, maybe three gold medals. That's better than nothing.

FENG: China is strongest in summer Olympic sports, such as weightlifting and diving. It's struggled to catch up to European countries with a long history of winter and downhill sports. Mr. Yu also says there's a market difference in this year's approach when compared to that of the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

YU: (Through interpreter) Back in 2008, the air was thick with excitement. This time around, whether it's because people don't understand winter sports in China or what, the atmosphere has been much more bland, with barely any publicity about the Games.

FENG: Since winning the Winter Games bid seven years ago, China's National Statistics Bureau claims it somehow convinced 346 million people to become winter sports enthusiasts. Retiree Meng Zhaoying is one of these people. NPR met her on the edge of Houhai Lake, where she's chipped away the thick ice to swim in the freezing water, another popular Beijing pastime thought to prevent cults. The city government encouraged her to pick up skiing in 2019.

MENG ZHAOYING: (Through interpreter) Our political leaders supported us, paid for all our trainers, and we get discounted tickets to the ski slopes.

FENG: Now, Miss Meng is part of the Beijing amateur ski team for seniors.

MENG: (Through interpreter) We have about 100 members, but in reality, those who actually know how to ski number only about 20 people.

FENG: One of Miss Meng's fellow septuagenarian swimmers hears us talking about the Olympics and interrupts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "It's all political theater," he says about the ski team. The Games cost too much and benefit the people too little. I asked if we can tape an interview with him, but he refuses. He says talking about the Games in such a critical way could get him in political hot water.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S "WHILE YOU'RE FADING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.