The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Beijing’s big air venue, the setting is post-apocalyptic and the jump is ‘perfect’

Big Air Shougang will be front and center again this week for the snowboard competition. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

BEIJING — At the starting gate, 200 feet up, big air Olympians can choose from a panoramic array of views. Straight ahead, they can take in the grand Beijing skyline, the under-construction Citic Tower poking into the clouds. Behind them, they can peer out at the craggy, brownish Western Mountains in the distance. And to their left, they can gaze upon a dystopic array of cooling towers and blighted office buildings, a fever dream that looks like someone plopped Homer Simpson’s workplace into circa-2005 Bushwick.

At a surreal Olympics of throat swabs, burner phones and barricaded hotels, Big Air Shougang may provide the most surreal images: the world’s most acrobatic snowboarders and skiers twisting and flipping against a backdrop of post-apocalyptic industrial ruins. If you concentrate on the athlete, you will see breathtaking body control that verges on artistry. If you adjust your focus just slightly, you will see rusted silos and paint-chipped buildings, seemingly vacant — unless, God forbid, there are zombies in there plotting the demise of humankind in an unholy alliance with disinfecting robots.

Big Air Shougang hosted Eileen Gu’s indelible gold medal performance at the outset of the Beijing Olympics, but it has grown infamous for its surroundings. Opened in 2019 and constructed on the grounds of an abandoned steel mill, the gigantic jump made of snow has provided a stage for daring feats of athleticism and fodder for memes.

“I noticed that many media friends are covering this venue … and are thinking that this venue has some qualities of cyberpunk to it,” Beijing 2022 spokeswoman Yan Jiarong said.

The venue will reemerge into the limelight Monday, weather permitting, during the men’s and women’s snowboard big air qualifications. Those riders are about to discover the peculiarity skiers experienced last week.

“It’s … it’s different, for sure,” said Swedish freestyle skier Henrik Harlaut, the big air bronze medalist. “It’s definitely not the most beautiful, but I think I’ve seen some pictures and posts on social media where it looks less beautiful. ... I think the jump and everything is super nice and super beautiful. So I think it’s awesome they’re turning a less beautiful place into something better-looking.”

Chinese officials built Big Air Shougang on the grounds of Capital Steel Factory, part of the Shougang Group. Once the largest steel mill in China, the factory shuttered in 2010 as China sought to reduce air pollution. Once officials decided they didn’t want a smog-generating plant, they needed something to fill the space. Liu Yumin, the Beijing organizing committee’s director of planning and construction, described the 2022 Olympics as “an important drive to the revival of industrial sites.”

On television, it may look like the big air jump sits near a few nuclear-style cooling towers. Shougang Park is actually a sprawling neighborhood. There are blocks and blocks of abandoned apartments and silos, some of which have been converted into office space.

“Every time we take the bus in, we talk about how we feel like we’re in a video game or a movie or something,” American freestyle skier Alex Hall said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

The area around the big air venue feels a little like a neighborhood on the brink of gentrification. Among the hollowed-out edifices, there are a winter sports training center, a luxury hotel and a trendy coffee shop with ground-to-ceiling windows.

“The whole industrial zone is really cool,” American freestyle skier Mac Forehand said. “I love how China repurposed it as something else and they don’t just leave it here dormant. It’s cool to see this jump in the middle of this abandoned factory. I hope we come back here in the future.”

The background may be befuddling to viewers, but the skiers and snowboarders love the jump. It may be the Augusta National of extreme sports. Big Air Shougang is the world’s first permanent big air venue. Harlaut called the venue “perfect” and “so, so well-built.” Many jumps at big air competitions are rickety, hastily built structures meant to pack in fans without prioritizing athletes’ comfort or even safety.

“We’ve done a lot of silly big air where it’s on scaffolding towers, where it’s always kind of sketchy with how narrow the in-run is or how short the landing is,” Harlaut said. “To be here where it’s a super-wide in-run, and there’s even space on the side of the jump so you can go on the side if you want, you can land and ride out without being scared of hitting the fence at the end. So it’s definitely very, very nice for us.”

“We’re super lucky to have a venue this good,” American freestyle skiing big air silver medalist Colby Stevenson said.

“The jump is really, really perfect,” Hall said. “The venue is awesome.”

Zhang Li, the chief architect behind Big Air Shougang, told state media he wanted to design it to look like a ribbon floating in the air. Many Chinese citizens have pointed out that it looks more like a massive stiletto, with a towering staircase forming the heel. Even looking at it, and not just gazing from on top of it, people can see what they want.