CHONGLI, China (AP) — Clad in neon-green from head to toe, Chinese snowboarder He Qiang is part of a growing cohort of middle-class enthusiasts in a country with little tradition of winter sports but that is now seeking to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The 28-year-old escapes his office job in the Chinese capital for the skiing mecca of Chongli, nestled in mountains near the Great Wall where Beijing hopes to stage Nordic skiing and other events in its bid to become the first city to hold both winter and summer Olympics.
"Snowboarding is just such an awesome feeling," He said, as a rare snow storm swirled around him and frigid wind gusts whistled along the edges of his ski lift's wind shield. "I can only imagine how much faster that will grow if we win the Winter Olympics."
He says more friends are joining him on the three-hour bus ride to the sprawling Genting Resort with its 70 kilometers (45 miles) of trails is one of three key sites proposed to hold the games. Work has already begun on a high-speed rail line that will reduce travel time from Beijing's northern suburbs to just 50 minutes.
Victory for Beijing would mean overcoming early concerns over region's general lack of natural snow and its chronic air pollution. Once considered an outlier as host, Beijing now appears to be the front-runner following the withdrawal of other contenders and a thoroughly well prepared bid effort.
Almaty, Kazakhstan, is the only remaining contender after cities in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway and other countries dropped out.
"I believe the International Olympic Committee is looking for a safe, reliable and risk-free city. I think this city of Beijing meets those conditions," said Zhang Jiandong, Beijing's vice mayor and vice president of the bid committee.
Beijing's success in the 2008 Summer Olympics, strong government and public support and its pre-existing infrastructure make it ideal, Zhang said.
Olympic inspectors will visit in March to survey the city's three clusters of facilities, each with their own athletes' village and media center.
Beijing says its bid closely aligns with the International Olympic Council's 2020 goals for a more frugal, more athlete-oriented games whose legacy will live on with robust sports programs and continuing use of venues. In all, the city plans to spend $3.9 billion on infrastructure and operations, while Zhang said substantial private sector investment and sponsorships will allay further costs.
That's a tiny fraction of the $51 billion Russia spent on the Sochi games and much closer to the $3.5 billion to $7.5 billion budgeted for the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South Korean resort city of Pyeongchang.
Originally, Beijing had been considered a long shot for hosting the games because both Pyeongchang and Tokyo, which is hosting the 2020 Summer games, are in Asia. . But all that changed when several European bids dropped out over cost concerns or after voters rejected them in referendums.
The IOC will announce the winner at its July meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Holding the games would provide greater impetus for reducing Beijing's notorious air pollution, said Fang Li, vice director of the city's environmental protection bureau.
By 2022, Beijing plans to reduce its annual coal consumption from 19 million to just 5 million tons, while stricter standards have already reduced automobile emissions by almost a quarter, despite the addition of 2.6 million cars since the 2008 games, Fang said.
"Preparing for the games can only accelerate these efforts," Fang said.
While winter sports are relatively new to China, the country has been making up for lost time. Already a top medal earner in the summer games, China won its first Winter Olympic medals in 1992, and has racked up a total of 12 golds in skating and freestyle skiing. It's now set its sights on ice hockey, with Beijing counting 1,500 players in its 97 youth teams.
Among those participants is 12-year-old goalie Gao Yuhong, whose parents introduced him to hockey five years ago to help toughen him up.
"I really love this sport," Gao says after a practice at the city's Capital Gymnasium Rink featuring aspiring players as young as 6. "I find it really hard to take when I'm not able to play. If at all possible, I want to play in the NHL someday."
China's rising middle and upper classes have also taken to skiing with a vengeance, with more than two dozen ski resorts within driving range of Beijing receiving up to 4 million visitors annually, according to official figures. The resorts employ thousands and generate tens of millions of dollars in hotel accommodation, lift tickets and equipment sales each season.
As it did with the Summer Games, China plans to make use of foreign expertise, by sending aspiring skiers to Austria, New Zealand and the United States, said Ma Shi, who heads the Flower Ski School, located inside Chongli's Winter Olympics museum.
"We're not there yet, but a lot of effort will be expended in the next four years," Ma said.
A major concern for Beijing's bid is the lack of natural snow in the mountains outside Beijing, which receives a meter or less per season.
To compensate, existing resorts use an estimated 1 million tons of water per year to make snow, and games organizers say rivers and reservoirs will provide adequate supplies.
Organizers claim upward of 95 percent of the Chinese support holding the games and conversations with residents of Chongli and Yanqing seem to bear out those numbers.
Politically, Beijing's 2022 bid stands to be far less contentious than the one for 2008, when complaints were lobbed over everything from relocation of city residents to China's policies in Tibet. That's largely a result of the lower profile of the winter event, as well as a sense of been-there, done-that, said Brownell.
"I think that a 2022 Winter Games would have less of a domestic and international impact than the 2008 Games did," said Susan Brownell, a visiting professor at Heidelberg University and author of a book on the 2008 Olympics.
"China already had its Olympic coming-out party," she said, "and is now seen as a member of the world community in a way that it wasn't previously."