The 10th anniversary of Vasaloppet China, which occurred on Jan 2, attracted more than 50,000 participants to the annual cross-country ski race in the northeastern province of Jilin, the most in its 10-year history in China.
Gavert Waag, a sports event organizer who brought the event from Sweden to China in 2003, says he is confident he can help make China one of the world’s largest markets for cross-country ski races.
Vasaloppet, an annual race that had 65,000 participants in Sweden in 2010, is the oldest and one of the biggest cross-country ski races in the world. The event dates back to 1922 in Sweden and was held in honor of Swedish King Gustav Vasa, who skied to Norway to seek support in the 1520s for a rebellion against an attempted takeover by Denmark.
Waag, the founder and president of Nordic Ways, a company dedicated to promoting Nordic countries’ sports in China, has seen a growing popularity of Vasaloppet China in the past 10 years.
The 52.5-km ski race in Changchun, capital of Jilin province, attracted 750 participants in 2003. The number of participants has exceeded 50,000 this year, 1,000 of whom are from foreign countries.
“More and more Chinese are pursuing a healthy lifestyle and the growing economy of China makes sure they have the time and the money to do that. There is no problem that Vasaloppet China will be as big as the one (that) takes place in Sweden,” says Waag, who made China the fourth country in the world to hold Vasaloppet after Sweden, the United States and Japan.
The Swede, who is in his 60s, first went to Changchun in 2002 to choose a site for an annual orienteering event organized by his company.
Waag, who has finished the 90-km Vasaloppet race in Sweden 17 times, immediately saw that Changchun and Sweden share a lot in common, such as the cold weather and pine forests, which make the city a perfect venue for cross-country skiing.
Cross-country skiing is an endurance sport, as participants need to use all of their major muscle groups for a long duration of time. Not every skier who participates in the race in Sweden can finish the 90-km ski in the allotted 12 hours.
Waag then went to the Changchun government to see whether city leaders had any interest in bringing Vasaloppet to China.
“It was a time that Changchun reached a bottleneck to further grow its winter sports economy. The government was eager to be more open and to be more connected with European countries,” says Waag, who adds that government support is the main reason that the event is successful.
Waag says about 60 percent of Nordic Way’s income is from governments and 30 percent is from various sponsors, which makes government support a decisive factor for event organizers.
“Changchun government has been very supportive of Vasaloppet China because the event brings a win-win situation for our company and the local government,” says Lai Ning, business development director of Nordic Ways.
Lai says Changchun is a famous city in Europe.
“European skiers go to Changchun to participate in Vasaloppet every year. So in the skier community in Europe, Changchun is more famous than other big cities in China,” he says.
Lai says the company invests a lot to make Vasaloppet China a brand. The company spent 3 million yuan in Europe that year to promote Vasaloppet China 2012.
With Vasaloppet, Changchun, which is known for its freezing winter conditions and has an average winter temperature of -15 C, has reported improving business in winter sports and leisure. Government statistics show that Vasaloppet has brought in new projects worth 110 billion yuan in its 10 years in Changchun.
Lai reveals that the positive economic outcome that Vasaloppet brings to Changchun has attracted attention from a neighboring province.
“There was one city, which is also in Northeast China, hoping we can move Vasaloppet there after we finish our 10-year contact with the Changchun government,” says Lai, who adds that the contract ended this January.
Waag has turned down the proposal from the neighboring province and says the consistent support from Changchun has helped Vasaloppet China becomes his company’s most successful event.
“Vasaloppet China has become one integrated part of the winter of Changchun. There is no reason for us to move,” Waag says.
Waag says that he considers Changchun his second home. He has spent an average of 150 days each year in Changchun over the past 10 years.