BEIJING – No, they are not nuclear power plant towers.
Three decades of opening credits for “The Simpsons” have led us to assume that any concave cylinders like the ones looming over Springfield – or over Big Air Shougang, the iconic venue for the 2022 Olympics – are nuclear towers.
Not so in this case. The cooling towers behind the grand pneumatic ramp are part of the former Shougang Steel Plant and now form a stunning, if puzzling backdrop, for the world’s first large permanent pneumatic facility. Used last week for free skating and this week in the big air on skateboards, the Shougang facility is the best venue in Beijing 2022…even if its future usefulness is more controversial than the Bird’s Nest stadium or the Ice Cube.
“It’s amazing what everyone has been able to do here,” said Elaine Jo, outdoor gold medalist at Friske last week. “Aesthetically, scientifically and technically, to be able to achieve it in such a professional way speaks a lot about the commitment that China has put into winter sports.”
But even skaters who don’t have a vested interest in promoting China highly praise the facility. “I am delighted my snowboarders and snowboarders have had their first permanent big air course,” Norwegian Birke Rudd, the men’s free skating gold medalist, said last week. “It’s a huge step in the sport. It’s really great.”
Great Britain’s Kristi Muir said, “Venue is amazing. The big air jump rides really well and it’s a great place to jump in. I really like it.”
“They pretty much did a mountain jump and put it in town,” said Alex Hall of Team USA. “He’s good looking.”
said Hall’s teammate, Mac Forehand. “So it’s great to see a jump like we see it on the mountain in the city.”
Voorhead was referring to the large, temporary air facilities built at the ball stadiums in the run-up to the 2022 Olympics. Fenway Park in Boston and Truist Field in Atlanta both hosted one, but both, by their temporary nature, were less stable than a built-in permanent facility.
“A lot of times, they build the big city vibe with scaffolding, it’s very shallow and it can be intimidating to do your biggest tricks,” said Colby Stephenson, a silver medalist in the air for Team USA, “but that seems safer, with a steep landing, And it has to be awesome.”
Designed as one of the iconic venues for the 2022 Games, Big Air Shougang has smartly chosen its location – cooling towers and all – as a symbol of the change the nation wanted to show the world.
The state-owned Chinese steelmaker Shougang once ran a mammoth plant. But pollution concerns around the time of the 2008 Olympics forced the plant to close and move its operations to a neighboring county. The remnants of the industry still exist – clusters of factories, chimneys and cooling towers – but the Chinese government is now looking to repurpose the entire area into something more usable for its residents. Plans call for, among other goals, to convert cooling towers into a wedding hall, which will surely result in the newlyweds’ first pictures being taken.
Big Air Shougang is located in the heart of the redesigned industrial area. Completed in October 2019, it was scheduled to host a whole series of events leading up to the 2022 Games. It hosted exactly one – in December 2019 – before the world intervened.
Designed by Chinese architecture firm TeamMinus, which also built the National Ski Jump Center in Zhangjiakou, Big Air Shougang has gone through several iterations. (The proposal to place the jump in Tiananmen Square was quickly scrapped, for obvious reasons.) As it turns out, the jump could have been closer to the cooling towers than it really is.
“We tried to get the elevator inside one of the cooling towers so you could see the athletes come out of nowhere at the beginning of their jumps,” Professor Zhang Li, the project’s chief engineer, told the Olympics Information Service recently. These cooling towers are very fragile structures, and if you make a hole in the skin, they are likely to collapse.
Like all Olympic planners, Chinese officials are announcing great future uses for Big Air Shougang, including as a venue for “various national and international sporting events,” “fitness-for-all and general experience programs” and “winter sports carnivals,” as well – “events Sports, cultural and commercial” not specified in other seasons. Whether or not any of these plans are implemented, Big Air Shougang has shown how to take a mountain sport to the masses in cities.
Big Air’s relatively small footprint – this stadium is about 180 feet high initially and runs roughly the length of two football fields – means it can perfectly fit into an urban setting. In turn, its presence in the cities, as opposed to the distant mountains, makes the Big Air event more attractive as a sports destination. Throw into a raucous crowd – when again possible – with some pulsing music and death-defying jumps, and you’ve got the ingredients for a sporting destination, whether in China or elsewhere.
“Bringing in a sport like a mountain sport, which is usually inaccessible for a lot of people and so far from the city, and showing what it’s all about in that kind of environment, is great,” said Hall. “It adds a good dimension to our sport and opens people’s eyes to what it is and the fact that, with the right facilities, you can also do it in the city. There are more places to ski than just the mountains, and [Big Air Shougang] Kind of opens that door.”
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