As China's once busy international sporting calendar looks threadbare, the country's latest decision to retreat from hosting such events will go against its aspiration to turn sport into a $747 billion industry by 2025.
A few months after holding a Winter Olympics as memorable for its extreme anti-Covid-19 measures as the competition, China has all but given up hosting international sporting events while it battles fresh outbreaks around key cities.
On Sunday, China surrendered hosting rights for next year’s Asian Cup, the continent’s top soccer showpiece, a move which came little more than a week after it postponed the multi-sport Asian Games to 2023.
Top-tier athletics, figure skating and an X Games event have been moved or cancelled in recent months, leaving China’s once busy international calendar looking threadbare.
Sports events still nominally on the calendar appear on ever more shaky ground as China sticks to its “zero-Covid” strategy while much of the rest of the world resumes normal life.
The Zhuhai Open tennis tournament has been cancelled the last two years but remains scheduled for late-September along with three other ATP events in China.
Peter Johnston, the Executive Tournament Director, said a decision would have to be made soon if it is to go ahead.
“It’s certainly getting to crunch time right now,” he told Reuters.
“There’s a real sense of wanting us to play after two years off but there has to be a call made on it very, very soon.”
China’s withdrawal from hosting events jars with its ambitions to turn sport into a $747 billion industry by 2025, a 70 perent increase on 2019 levels.
Last August, as China savoured a successful Olympics for its athletes at the postponed Tokyo Games, authorities issued a national fitness programme with objectives to build or renovate thousands of sports venues and training centres, and “strengthen international exchanges”.
China showed it could host big events safely during the pandemic at the “closed loop” Beijing Winter Games, which kept athletes and Games personnel sealed off from the public.
Authorities have not indicated a willingness to do the same for lower-profile events.
Johnston said it was “potentially feasible” to hold his tournament in a closed loop but the enforcement of mandatory quarantine for people who test positive for Covid-19 would be difficult for some players to accept.
“Really, that’s when you get push-back from the (tennis) tours saying that’s a bit too extreme to be asking players to potentially stay on outside the tournament time in a quarantine setting,” he said.
“It does make it hard to get it done in China at the moment.”
While tournament organisers and event planners may face further headaches as China adheres to a zero-Covid strategy, digital sports marketers said the demand for sports content remained strong in the country.
“Lockdown restrictions have led to a pivot towards more activities at home, including watching live sports,” said Justin Tan, Managing Director of Mailman China, a global digital sports agency headquartered in Shanghai.
“On one hand, we miss the physical proximity to the biggest stars and teams of global sports.
“On the other hand, we have had the opportunity, with success, to create new experiences for fans here, enabled and powered by digital connectivity and new technologies.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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Photo credit: The Opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics at Beijing this year. Presidential Executive Office of Russia/www.kremlin.ru / Wikimedia