BEIJING, March 24 (Xinhua) -- With several candidate cities dropping out of the race for 2022 Winter Olympics bids, it seems Beijing's odds of winning have increased substantially, save one crucial detail -- the notorious smog enveloping the city.
A team from the International Olympic Committee has arrived in Beijing to evaluate the city's ability to host the games. One thing they're certain to find is no shortage of enthusiasm for sport - even in a place where winter sports are confined to skating and skiing -- with an estimated 300 million Chinese people participating in winter sports.
Winter sports facilities and infrastructure are another area where the city is easily covered. With China's successful hosting of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, Shanghai Expo in 2010 and Beijing Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2014 as well a high speed rail linking Beijing to joint host city Zhangjiakou - the facilities to host the games are already in place.
But what about the poor air quality?
Unlike the summer games in 2008, hosting a winter sporting event will coincide with Beijing's worst air period. In winter, millions of tons of coal are burned to fuel collective heating and pollution-clearing winter winds from the north are turned back by the city's mountains, adding to the difficulty of guaranteeing blue skies.
Scientists have said it will take Beijing decades to turn smoggy skies blue. A recent environmental protection plan from the Beijing government put the deadline for blue skies at 2030.
Qin Dahe, former head of China Meteorological Administration, said fighting air pollution all depends on China's ability to transform its energy and industrial structure, in addition to public efforts.
"I can't tell how many years it will take, but I think 30 years would be too long and 3-5 years is too unrealistic," Qin said.
So is seven years enough?
Lyu Xinhua, spokesman for this year's national committee of Chinese Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, said hosting the winter games may help Beijing achieve the 2030 goal in advance.
So far, Beijing has effectively guaranteed good air quality during critical periods. During the APEC summit, the demonstrated ability to ensure blue skies led to the coining of the phrase "APEC Blue".
But "APEC Blue" was created with unconventional methods at a special time, said Li Ting at Institute of Atmospheric Physics of Chinese Academy of Sciences. "Those measures are very costly and can not be enforced permanently."
During the APEC summit, Beijing and several neighboring provinces suspended thousands of factories and construction sites, ordered half of the cars off the streets and granted a six-day vacation to more than two million of its residents.
It is yet to be seen whether Beijing still needs to take unconventional measures if the city wins the bidding race, but winning can help the city tackle air pollution, said Wang Hui, deputy secretary general of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games Bid Committee at a press briefing on Saturday.
Wang said Beijing will spend more than 40 billion yuan (6.44 billion U.S. dollars) and enterprises will contribute 760 billion yuan to fight smog.
"We are enforcing the sternest measures," said Wang.
Wang also said fighting air pollution will help residents of the city breathe clean air rather than just welcome the Olympics. "Bidding for the Olympics will help us tackle air pollution, while fighting air pollution can also help the bidding process."
No matter what, Beijing has demonstrated its desire to welcome the games. Last week, two thermal coal-burning plants were shut down, paving the way for use of clean and low-emission energy. Of the four major coal-fired power plants in Beijing, three have been closed and the last is scheduled to be shut down next year.
Beijing's neighboring Hebei province is also gearing up to relinquish economic returns from heavily polluting industries such as steel-making, cement, electricity and glass-making.
The Hebei provincial environmental protection department estimates economic growth was cut by 1.75 percentage points due to pollution fighting measures.
Some experts believe a two-city bid will help the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region better coordinate their efforts to fight pollution.
"If the region takes the opportunity of the games and steps up their industrial restructuring process, especially in Hebei, then Winter Olympics Blue is still possible," said Li Ting.