“Red Star, go go! Red Star, go go!”
The atmosphere at the Beijing LeSports Center is brimming with excitement. Home team Kunlun Red Star has just scored their first goal against Finnish team Jokerit; cheerleaders pump their pompoms in triumph, and the audience rattles red plastic tubes feverishly.
The numbers in the stadium are modest however, as the majority of seats are empty. The 4,700 people in the audience fill up a mere third of the LeSports Center’s maximum capacity. Despite the poor turnout, the match is still historic, as it marks the first time in history a Finnish team has played set points in China.
While historic for Finland, the event is monumental for China. The country can already show off medals in gymnastics and weightlifting, but now has its sights on winter sports – especially ice hockey.
The foundations for the Finnish-Chinese faceoff were laid last June. The then newly founded Kunlun Red Star joined the Russia-led KHL-league. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping attended the ceremony in Beijing.
Ice hockey still has a long way to go before China’s megastadiums are packed with screaming fans. Last fall, Red Star’s KHL games in Shanghai attracted just 550 people – a ridiculously low turnout for a league game.
The crowd’s disinterest could be explained by the fact that China’s most prominent ice hockey team barely has any Chinese players. Out of the two Chinese players in the team, defenseman Zach Yuen was on the ice for a total of 11 minutes by the beginning of February – far better than centre Rudi Ying, who skated for just two.
Nevertheless, over 50 million viewers tuned in to watch the Red Stars battle Jokerit on the CCTV5+ channel. That number of viewers trumps the competition anywhere else in the world. By contrast, the 2016 NHL final in the US gathered just under six million television viewers. The sheer volume of Chinese sports enthusiasts makes it a very lucrative business.
Greetings from Helsinki, says mayor Jussi Pajunen and attempts a shy thank you in Chinese. Clad in a red hoodie, Peter Vesterbacka from Rovio, the company behind Angry Birds, one ups Pajunen and receives a round of applause for his short introductory speech in Chinese. Switching to English, he talks about the importance of teamwork and mentions thrice how Slush, the start-up festival he founded, is the world’s biggest event of its kind.
It is the day before the big match in the LeSports Center in Beijing. Finland’s state export promotion company Finpro has organized a series of events and a seminar focusing on winter sports. International trade has brought delegates from over a hundred companies together. Finpro’s representatives gush how this must be one of the biggest Finnish business delegations in China ever.
In a keynote speech, Sari Arho Havrén from Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, lists numbers and plans for future development from sharing economies to blockchains. The most vital information concerning ice hockey is this: despite Goldman Sachs’ estimates that only 11 per cent of Chinese belong to the middle class, their ranks are rising rapidly.
Naturally it’s not a given that the affluent portion of the nation would spend their yuans following winter sports. The most important reason for Finpro’s event is the 2022 Winter Olympics, organized in Beijing and in Zhangjiakou 140 kilometres away.
The People’s Republic of China has decided it will get 300 million Chinese people hooked on winter sports by the Olympics. This means directing public funds to anything related to winter sports, from ski tunnels to ice hockey arenas and training camps. It is precisely these funds that Finnish businesses are hoping to entice with sales pitches and intense networking.
All that’s left to do is convince the Chinese that Finland is the right companion to help their country achieve its frostiest daydreams. The talking points all seem to be in order at least: former chair of the Finnish Olympic committee and one of the coordinators of the 2022 Winter Olympics Risto Nieminen emphasizes that Finns are born with “ice and snow in their blood”. Former Finnish Ambassador to Beijing Jari Gustafsson says the Olympics should strive for an atmosphere of understanding and friendship.
China has demand and Finland has the goods. Finland’s success in China is dependent on whether the Finnish government manage to sell the Chinese a completely new, exotic sport.
The crack of hockey pucks being smacked echoes loudly around the rink. It’s the second day of the Beijing Pond Hockey Tournament, and an ice rink has been erected in close proximity to the city’s Millennium monument.
In Finland, an event like this would be dusted off as amateur league; all players need are enthusiasm, a pair of ice skates and a hockey stick. Organised for the fifth time, the event has attracted 20 teams of four, some arriving all the way from Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Events like this aim to give the nation a boost in hockey morale. On a Saturday morning, there are about as many people in the audience as there are on the ice. The majority seem to be Western, and the few Chinese audience members gaping at the game are seemingly there by accident. The players have dressed up as bears, dinosaurs and animal trappers. One panda bear with the Finnish flag wrapped over its shoulders skates amongst the players.
With his full beard and baseball cap embroidered with the words Hockey go, the event’s founder Curtis Dracz looks exactly like the Canadian ice hockey fan he is. Dracz has lived in Beijing since 2009 and has been a referee, coach and a representative in Beijing’s International Ice Hockey League. Now he heads his own company and promotes ice hockey for a living.
Ice hockey is gaining popularity in China slowly but surely, Dracz believes. The last few years especially have brought new hockey teams and foreign coaches to the country. Some local youth have even had the opportunity to participate in training camps abroad.
“The Chinese have become interested in leisure sports in general. Especially so when China was given the Olympics to host.”
Ice hockey gear and training require money and Chinese parents place high hopes the investment will provide their offspring with new opportunities, such as useful networks or possibilities to study abroad.
“Playing ice hockey is a status symbol. It’s a Western sport, and gives the parents the opportunity to say that my kid plays ice hockey. That can help improve their social standing in the eyes of others.”
Dracz analyses that the Chinese and Westerners have a different relationship to ice hockey.
“The Chinese have an inherent desire to do sports for competition, while in the West we do it for friendship. More and more Chinese are growing interested in playing in our international league, and they are always amazed when we pop some beers and chat in the dressing room after a match.”
What does Dracz think about the Chinese government’s goal of introducing 300 million Chinese people to winter sports?
“300 million sounds a bit high, doesn’t it?” Dracz says.
“But when we talk about a million… I don’t know, I don’t think it’s too unrealistic. You could probably increase participation numbers with a good recruiting program and a stable plan for development. And if China does well in the Olympics, I think there will be even more possibilities for that.”
Just a few years ago Dracz’s trust in the Chinese sports strategy would have sounded naïve. The government’s attitude towards sports was, to be charitable, results-oriented.
“China has poured massive amounts of public money into elite competitive sports in order to win gold medals, but has neglected to fund grassroots sports activity,” says Ping Wu, senior lecturer in sport sociology at the University of Bedfordshire.
Now the government and state media have adopted a new mentality: sports should be available to everyone. Official statements declare promoting leisure sports would benefit the nation both economically and health-wise.
This change in policy dates back to recent history and how the Communist Party has interpreted it. According to party doctrine, the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 ended a hundred year period of oppression and humiliation by Western colonial states and the Japanese. Ever since, the country’s leadership has aimed for the “national rebirth” of China and to put the country back onto the world map.
Achievements in athletics were seen as one measure of success. For example, the country celebrated a five-time world championship in women’s volleyball in the 1980s. In 2008 China hosted their first Olympics in Beijing and overtook the United States in the number of gold medals.
China was finally superior to the West.
“The Beijing Olympics will always be special. I don’t believe any Chinese Olympics could succeed the political and historic significance of 2008,” says Wu.
The main reason China can pursue other goals and invest in supporting sporting more widely is because it has fulfilled its ambitions in competitive sports.
Promoting winter sports aims to encourage domestic spending and balance China’s export-reliant economy. Chinese athletes are also increasingly seen as celebrities and entertainers instead of national heroes.
The symbolic meaning of elite sports has decreased as China has strengthened its political and economic influence. China became the world’s second largest economy in 2010, and during Xi Jinping’s term the Chinese have been encouraged to be proud of their nation’s system and culture. Removing sports from the political sphere has been one of the ways in which the leadership has directed its people to consider China a great power – with or without gold medals.
Elite competitive sport can still become politicised in certain situations. When China barely managed to score the third most gold medals in last year’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, it caused a typhoon of nationalistic public outcries and comments on social media. According to Wu, the common rhetoric was that the world’s second greatest power deserved at least the second highest number of medals.
Even stronger reactions are expected in Tokyo’s Summer Olympic in 2020, when host country Japan has a fair shot at overtaking China. As the countries have a long, problematic history and a tense relationship, Japan’s victory would be an unbearable humiliation to China.
“If Japan wasn’t hosting the next Summer Olympics, Chinese sports would continue to be non-political,” Wu estimates.
Winter sports don’t face the same kind of pressure, Wu says.
“I believe that the Chinese government and the Chinese people will be satisfied if China is able to somehow raise its ranking in the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
The match has barely reached its end – Red Star takes a lead on the third round – when the audience starts dispersing. For the Chinese and their leadership, ice hockey is just one sport amongst many others, but for Finland it’s a big part of national identity. Finland’s world championships in 1995 and 2011 are a solid part of the Finnish collective memory in much the same way that volleyball victories are to the Chinese.
Elite sports may not be politicised in the same way in Finland but beating certain countries is seen as a matter of defending national honour.
For some Finns ice hockey is so important that they are willing to fly all the way to Beijing to support their favourite team. Could this passion spread in China?
62-year-old Ling Ping is dressed in a Red Star fan shirt. This is retired Madame Ping’s third Red Star game. She believes it is crucial to get children playing as early as possible and regrets not learning to skate when she was younger.
“Hopefully all the plans for development will be worked out in practice when the time is right.”
Ling suspects that a lack of ice might prevent ice hockey’s rise to popularity.
40-year-old Mr Yang motions with his hands to imitate playing ping pong and swimming when he explains how they differ from ice hockey. He says he works in the public sector and became interested in ice hockey last year when his 8-year-old son started the sport.
“I wish there was more interaction between China and other ice hockey countries. Foreign teams could come here and we could visit them,” Yang says.
“Ice hockey is all about community, working together and team spirit. I believe Chinese people really need experiences like that.”
The match ends with 6–3 to the Kunlun Red Stars. The Red Stars played their first match in Helsinki last November, and now shake hands with their Finnish hosts in their own home rink.
An indifferent attitude by the Chinese toward ice hockey might be a benefit after all. It might allow the nation to approach the sport with an open mind, free of the burden of history and duty to bring home gold.
The Red Stars have potential to be trailblazers in introducing the sport to a large audience. 21-year-old bank employee Zhao Wenyuan sits in the stadium’s rafters for the second time in his life, and describes the potential he sees in the team.
“I have a feeling the Kunlun Red Stars could have a similar impact to that Yao Ming has had in basketball.”
Yao stands 229 centimetres tall, and was selected by the Houston Rockets to the NBA in 2002. According to some estimates, 200 million Chinese viewers tune in to watch his games.
That’s only a 100 million less than China’s winter sports goal.
Translated by Melissa Heikkilä.