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Taizicheng (China) (AFP) - High on a barren mountainside, a red flag marks the spot where China hopes ski jumpers will launch themselves to glory at the 2022 Winter Olympics. But hosting the Games would require a giant leap of its own.
For now, the bitterly cold valley is home to Taizicheng, a sleepy community of about 100 houses where traditional Chinese music drifts on the biting wind. On the opposite hillside -- where biathletes would race and shoot -- peasants weighed down by loads of firewood are the only sign of life.
According to Beijing's bid document, the site would see 30 gold medals decided in the nordic skiing events, and become the base for a bustling Olympic village, complete with a newly erected bullet train station.
Six months ahead of the International Olympic Committee making its decision, Beijing 2022 has emerged as the front-runner in the race after a string of European cities withdrew, leaving it facing off against only the Kazakhstan city of Almaty.
The Chinese capital has financial muscle and the kind of political support that only a one-party state can provide, and officials say public backing is overwhelming.
But the country has few top-class facilities for outdoor events, little snow in the bid area, and even less of a tradition in winter sports.
Only about one metre of snow falls annually in the mountains north of Beijing, leaving an average depth of 21 centimetres (8 inches) in Zhangjiakou, the city which includes Taizicheng, and just over five centimetres (two inches) in Yanqing, where the alpine skiing events would be held.
"I think from a natural conditions point of view this is definitely not the best place to have a big winter activity, at least for snow sports," said Fabio Ries, the general manager of the nearby Dolomiti Mountain Resort.
But officials have outlined a bold plan to carve world-class skiing facilities into desolate mountainsides and weave a bullet train system through the rugged terrain -- and they claim to be confronting the notorious smog of China's northern rustbelt.
- Cool runnings -
According to the bid document, if Beijing wins a new resort will be built on Yanqing's Xiaohaitou mountain, including a piste with a vertical drop of 830 metres, just scraping in over the International Ski Federation's minimum for a top-class men's downhill race.
It will have an elaborate artificial snow-making system and be a tourist destination "on a par with Tokyo's Fuji", said Beijing planning official Ma Jinghua.
Yanqing would also gain a bobsleigh track. There is virtually no bobsleigh infrastructure in China at present, nor does it have a national team.
President Xi Jinping has said 300 million new winter sports enthusiasts will be created on the back of the Games, a new generation of skiers and skaters Beijing vice mayor Zhang Jiandong described as a "contribution to the Olympic movement".
"Our existing national conditions and facilities will meet the requirements of the Winter Olympic Games," Zhang added confidently, but admitted that the pollution which regularly blights northern China remains an issue.
Authorities have in the past ordered widespread factory closures to ensure clear skies for major events, but last year a stage of the Tour of Beijing cycling race between Chongli -- the county which includes Taizicheng -- and Yanqing was cut short because of the smog.
"We say that we will spare no efforts to improve the air quality," said Zhang. "We still need the blessing from heaven, and many people wonder if we can get that luck."
- Double Olympian -
Beijing would become the first city to host both the summer and winter Games if it won the bid, with the Chinese capital itself hosting the ice sports.
A total of 11 venues from Beijing's spectacular 2008 Olympics would be put to use, including the Bird's Nest stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the Water Cube for curling.
Authorities say using existing venues would help the candidate city keep to a slender budget of $3.9 billion, a fraction of the $51 billion Russia spent on last year's Sochi Games.
But much of the infrastructure improvements are not included in the total costs, including a high-speed rail line -- to be built in any case -- which will cut travel times between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, around 200 kilometres away, from more than three hours to a mere 50 minutes.
There were "pros and cons" over holding the Games, said the Dolomiti resort's Ries, who has been involved in skiing in China since 1985.
But he raised concerns over a tendency for Olympic hosts to build new facilities where none previously existed and there was no demand, "especially some sports which are commercially a nonsense like bob-sledding, skeleton, ski-jumping and so on".
The Italian added: "For some disciplines, you can't move mountains."