By Ian Ransom
(Reuters) – A few months after hosting a Winter Olympics as memorable as its competitors for its extreme anti-COVID-19 measures, China has all but abandoned hosting international sporting events while battling new outbreaks in key cities fights
On Sunday, China relinquished hosting rights to next year’s Asian Cup, the continent’s main football showcase, a move that came just over a week after the multi-sport Asian Games were postponed to 2023.
Top-flight athletics, figure skating and an X Games event have all been postponed or canceled in recent months, making China’s once-busy international calendar look flimsy.
Sporting events that are still nominally on the calendar appear on increasingly 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 canceled for the past 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 must be made soon if the tournament is to go ahead.
“It’s definitely time for the crunch now,” he told Reuters.
“There’s a real feeling we want to play after a two-year break, but a decision has to be made very, very soon.”
China’s retreat from hosting events runs counter to its ambitions to turn esports into a 5 trillion yuan ($747 billion) industry by 2025, a 70% increase from 2019 levels.
Last August, as China brought its athletes successful Olympics at the postponed Tokyo Games, authorities enacted a national fitness program with the goal of building or renovating thousands of sports venues and training centers and “boosting international exchanges.”
China has shown it can safely host large events during the pandemic at the “closed-loop” Beijing Winter Games, which kept athletes and game staff isolated from the public.
Authorities have not signaled a willingness to do the same for lesser-known events.
Johnston said it was “possibly feasible” to hold his tournament in a closed circuit, but enforcing mandatory quarantine on people who have tested positive for COVID-19 would be difficult for some players to accept.
“Really, that’s when you’re being pushed back by the (tennis) tours and saying that’s a bit too extreme to ask players to possibly stay in a quarantine environment outside of tournament time,” he said.
“It makes it difficult to get it done in China right now.”
While tournament organizers and event planners could face another headache as China adheres to a zero-COVID strategy, digital sports marketers said demand for sports content in the country remains strong.
“Lockdown restrictions have prompted more activity at home, including live sports,” said Justin Tan, managing director of Mailman China, a global digital sports agency headquartered in Shanghai.
“On the one hand, we miss the physical proximity to the biggest stars and teams in global sport.
“On the other hand, we’ve had the opportunity here to successfully create new experiences for fans, enabled and fueled by digital connectivity and new technologies.”
($1 = 6.6893 Chinese renminbi yuan)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)