Getting out there - more Chinese are
Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
632Trip End Dec 31, 2011
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ultra marathons that turn feet into blistered, bloody stumps. Nordic
skiing in winter's brutal cold. Riding mountain bikes on rump-numbing
trails across the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
many Chinese, these have long been things that only crazy foreigners do
for fun. But that's not so true anymore. The number of Chinese
competing in such adventure sporting events has been growing rapidly in
recent years as the country's leisure-loving middle class continues to
Many companies are lining up to get a bigger piece of
the market, while others see the trend as a new way to promote their
When the organizers of the North Face 100 began
accepting applications for China's first large-scale ultra-marathon
last year, they thought that most runners would opt for the
9.98-kilometer fun-run option, says Julia Cui, director of sports
events at Octagon, the marketing company that promoted the event.
100 slots were available for runners who wanted to do the grueling
100-kilometer race, which started at the Great Wall and went through
the Ming Tombs outside Beijing last April, Cui says.
organizers were stunned when 300 people tried to sign up and had to be
turned away from the race sponsored by American outdoor gear company
The North Face. "We didn't realize that this would be so popular," Cui
Octagon has seen a big spike in interest in other
endurance events it organizes in China, like the marathon in the
eastern city of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.
"From 2006, there
were only 5,000 people attending the race, but in 2009, there were
14,000," Cui says. "So the increase was huge."
those who did sports in China were mostly an elite few who were plucked
out of school at young ages because they had the right physique or
coordination for gymnastics, table tennis, diving or some other event.
Most other Chinese spent their lives in the fields, factories or
pushing paper. They were busy just struggling to make a living. Extra
income was spent on food, clothing and other necessities - not US$90
trail running shoes that would get you through an ultra-marathon.
that's changing as the ranks of China's new middle class continue to
swell. More people have the time and money for recreation, and leisure
sports serve as a good "filtering system" for companies who are trying
to reach consumers with money to spend, says Chris Renner, president
for China of sports marketing agency Helios Partners.
do your consumer-based research, you'll find that amazingly, unlike the
United States, when you see people participating, doing walking,
running, badminton, swimming, they're all higher-level income," Renner
"They're higher level because they're the only ones who
have leisure time. The 800 million people working in the fields don't
have time for that and certainly the migrant workers don't have time
Renner says the growth potential is enormous.
almost starting from scratch, honestly," he says. "And I think there is
an appetite as the virtuous cycle of more income, more education, more
leisure time starts spinning itself."
Intelligence Unit said in a report last October that China's sports
sponsorship market is worth about US$1.5 billion to US$2 billion - just
a fraction of the global market of US$60 billion. Although the state
still dominates sports, the report said, commercialization is taking
root. But much more development at the grass-roots level is needed, it
Daimon Ling is among the new class of white-collar
fitness fanatics. The 31-year-old deputy general manager at a records
management company in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong
Province, says that traditionally his peers liked to spend their
leisure time playing mahjong. But more of them are getting into
mountain biking and cycling on the roads.
"Ten years ago, there
were no Websites in China about cycling that we could go to for
information," says Ling, who rides an expensive carbon-fiber model
produced by famed Italian bike maker Tommasini. "But now, there are
about 10 of them that I check."
Ling is the ideal customer for
many outdoor gear companies that are aggressively moving into the
market. In Guangzhou, the Columbia Sportswear Co runs infomercials on
small flat-screen televisions in taxi cabs. One ad features a young man
who works in an airline company but has a passion for hiking in the
Tibet Autonomous Region. He's shown wearing a floppy hat and fancy
hiking boots, trekking among snow-capped mountains and bright blue
Trek Bicycle Corp is another company that's focusing on
China's growing masses of weekend warriors. The American company -
which already has 250 dealers across China - recently moved its Asia
director, Philip McGlade, from Japan to Beijing.
"The potential here is massive," McGlade says.
adds that another factor that makes the Chinese market so attractive is
that it's relatively easy to reach great places to ride because
suburban sprawl is rare in China.
"Even in cities like Shanghai
and Beijing, the two largest cities, the ability to access the outdoors
is actually really good," McGlade says.
One of the pioneers in
introducing mass athletic events to the Chinese is the Swedish company
Nordic Ways Group, which for 11 years has been organizing
Scandanavian-style sporting events in China. The firm known for
organizing the Vassalopet cross-country ski festival started out in
China in 1998 by promoting orienteering (a race using a map and
Now, Nordic Ways has branched out into mountain
biking in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, grassland marathons and
Nordic skiing. It organizes between 20 to 25 events each year, says
Niclas Hellqvist, the group's Beijing-based managing director.
company strives to replicate famous Swedish athletic events in China.
Last September, Nordic Ways organized a 177-kilometer road cycling race
around Fuxian Lake in Yuxi in southwestern China. The inaugural event,
which attracted 300 cyclists, was modeled after the annual
Vatternrundan in Sweden, billed as the world's largest recreational
The race's sponsor list included the makers of
PowerBar energy snacks, Pearl Izumi sportswear and Look bicycle
components. Most of the participants were local Chinese.
says that the Beijing Olympics in 2008 helped get more people
interested in sports. It also got more local officials interested in
hosting events, he adds. More of them are viewing sports as a good way
to highlight their cities and attract investment.
Hellqvist declines to discuss how well Nordic Ways has been doing financially.
"Put it this way, we have been in China since 1998 and we're still here," he says. "It's a tough job but we're still here."