Closed steel mill sends Olympic skiers – no smoke
BEIJING – Alex Hall is used to a big mountain view. The American freestyle skier, however, might get used to the view atop Big Air Shougang.
“Things like the crazy chimneys in the back are pretty cool,” he said. “You can see some of the mountains in the background, you have this temple here, the city is over there, the steel plant. You can see a lot of things.
Whenever he and his fellow big air competitors return to China, many people will also be able to see them.
Big air freeskiing opened its Olympic competition on Monday at the world’s first permanent city-based big air facility, a redeveloped steelworks west of Beijing that has created a stunning backdrop for one of the newest sports games. Freeskiing takes on big air for the first time as a Winter Games discipline, while snowboarders will be there next week after making their debut in Pyeongchang four years ago.
The 200-foot aerial structure was built on the site of the former Shougang Group Steel Mill, China’s first state-owned factory that helped the country become a world leader in steel production. Its billowing chimneys provided work for thousands of people, but also darkened the skies over Beijing’s Shijingshan district, contributing to the city’s air pollution problem.
China closed the factory in conjunction with the 2008 Summer Games, seeking to clean up its image, as well as its air.
The sprawling campus has been transformed into a bizarre, yet beautiful, city oasis.
Factories and rusting machinery remain, but the space in between has been filled with grassy lawns, glassy ponds and lots of greenery. One of the blast furnaces has been renovated and transformed into a steampunk-style event space with shops, commercial offices and a museum. The yards host dance performances in the summer, and the architects plan to turn one of the huge cooling towers hovering above the great sky jump into a wedding venue.
“It feels like it was created in a virtual world, in a video game,” said American freeskier Nick Goepper.
It is also at the heart of China’s efforts to encourage 300 million people to participate in winter sports parallel to these Games. Facilities have been dug into the complex’s infrastructure to help Chinese athletes train in short-track speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey and curling. The Beijing Organizing Committee is even based in the park offices.
The eye-catcher, however, is the great outdoors.
The discipline is a kind of high-risk home derby for snowboarding and freestyle skiing, taking one element of the sport and pushing it to its extreme. Because the jumps are only a few hundred feet long – compared to several thousand on slopestyle courses – they are ideal for live audiences.
Best of all, you don’t need a mountain to host a major aerial event. Temporary jumps have been erected at Boston’s Fenway Park and Atlanta’s Truist Park in recent years, bringing the mountain sport to metropolitan areas instead of asking the masses to hit native ski and snowboard trails.
“When we went to Atlanta, a lot of these people don’t see snow often,” said American snowboarder Chris Corning. “I’m not sure they have snowplows there.”
Freeskiers have noticed a huge improvement in quality at the permanent Big Air Shougang. As American Colby Stevenson said, scaffolding jumps like the one in Atlanta can be “pretty sketchy”.
“It’s a little scary just because you can like it, feel it swinging,” said teammate Mac Forehand.
With narrow runways and shorter, flatter landings, these temporary setups are not conducive to expansion. Shougang’s spacious configuration does not have these restrictions.
“You feel like you’re in the mountains,” said Swedish freeskier Oliwer Magnusson.
This can be seen in training sessions, when several skiers launched previously unfinished tricks. Male freeskiers expect their opponents innovate in the final on Wednesday, and that is only possible thanks to the quality of the jump.
It has athletes drooling over the possibility of other permanent venues popping up elsewhere, but it’s not clear that will happen. China has invested aggressively in its efforts to involve citizens in winter sports, which has made the Big Air Shougang possible.
“I think the direction is right,” said US-born Eileen Gu, who competes for China in part because she wants to inspire Chinese girls to take up skiing.
Such a place, however, might not be used enough to be justified in another city. The Shougang jump has been laid out so that the seats can also be used for concerts and shows in the summer, but the ramp itself has limited use. After all, there are only a limited number of skiers and snowboarders who can handle being thrown more than 20 feet into the air.
“If something like this was durable enough to be repeated all over the world, I think that would be super cool,” Goepper said. “It just brings the sport closer to the public.”
Anyway, we appreciate the particularity of what is happening here, where the construction sites which once poured columns of black smoke into the smog of Beijing rather pull the Olympians towards the sky.
“One of the coolest things I’ve seen,” Forehand said.
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