A China Memory Inspires an Olympic Icon

January 28, 2022

The opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is just around the corner and the only permanent new venue, the National Speed Skating Oval (NSSO), will write a new Olympic chapter for China.

The stunning ‘Ice Ribbon’ will stand alongside the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and ‘Water Cube’ which were built for the 2008 Summer Olympics precinct making Beijing the only city in the world to host both a Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

Designed as a spectacular landmark, the NSSO is the main venue for the Winter Olympics speed skating competition and will provide a community sport and training venue after the Games. It was designed by the global sports architecture firm Populous, after winning an international design competition in 2016.


A childhood memory of a traditional winter game in Beijing provided much of the inspiration for the conceptual design for the NSSO’s ‘Ice Ribbon’.

The game was “ice tops” and the memory belonged to Tiric Chang, Principal of Populous in China and the co-Project Director of the NSSO.

Having lived in Beijing since he was a child, Tiric has vivid memories of wintertime in the capital city, laughing and playing with his young friends around the ice tops in the Shichahai Park ice rink.

“The traditional ice game in old Beijing involved a high-speed spinning and leaping ice top that seemed to have infinite energy and possibilities.

“That’s what I thought of when reflecting on the characteristics of Olympic speed skating. So, the ice tops became part of the design inspiration injecting a strong Chinese memory into the venue,” Chang said.

Image: Shutterstock

Following the worldwide design competition involving over 60 companies, Populous was selected to design the architectural concept scheme for NSSO, creating an iconic new venue for Beijing and the only permanent new venue for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.

This win sees the firm involved in their 14th Olympic Games, both summer and winter.


Another distinctive childhood memory evolved the ice top concept to the final ice ribbon design.

From an early age, Chang was captivated by his grandparents and father’s dedication to the study and the preservation of the Dunhuang Grottoes, an important collection of Buddhist art from the Tang dynasty.

Chang’s grandmother told him stories of the grotto paintings which showed flying apsaras, not with wings, but flying freely through the sky with their stunning, colourful silk ribbons.

Image: Shutterstock

“This concept became an important inspiration for me in the design of NSSO.

“It guided the design team to boldly extend the concept of a high-speed rotating ice top to creating 22 rotating light bands for the façade, which not only represent the ice surface and the shape of the oval, but also perfectly demonstrate the high-speed movement of speed skaters.

“The ice top transformed into an ice ribbon and the design of NSSO created a beautiful interpretation of Chinese culture and heritage from figurative to abstract by our global design team,” Chang explains.

In addition to the beautiful appearance of NSSO, the design process has also been thoroughly considered in terms of its practical functions to meet the requirements on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Skating Union (ISU). Importantly, the design also adds to the intense and exciting atmosphere where every movement and sound of the speed skating blades can be seen and heard by everyone in the oval.

“Aesthetics and practicality are perfectly unified in the design of NSSO,” Chang said.

Image: Hand drawn sketch by Tiric Chang


Although the design concept originated from a memory of China, NSSO is the result of a global collaboration across multiple Populous offices.

“Our teams in Beijing, Brisbane, India, London and Denver all worked together, drawing on our experience from Oval Lingotto in Turin, Italy and our design of Fisht Stadium in Russia, home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, as well as our worldwide Olympic and arena experience.

“The NSSO’s distinctive façade celebrates the precision, pace and drama of speed skating and takes its place in the iconic Olympic Park, complementing Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ and the ‘Water Cube’,” Chang said.

The light strands (or ribbons) flow up and around the Oval, cocooning it to a height of some 33.8 metres. This ‘shell’ secures a high level of visitor comfort and amenity, in keeping with it being the world leading speed skating venue for competitors and spectators.

At night, the facade creates an exciting spectacle, with each of the strands becoming dynamic ribbons of light, able to change to an endless array of lighting programs.

Image: Supplied by NSSO (taken while under construction)

The client, Beijing National Speed Skating Oval Operation Co. said the ‘Ice Ribbon’ demonstrates the excellence of Populous’ design and justified their international reputation in sports architecture.

“It was an extraordinary project, the key building for the 2022 Winter Olympics…and continues to receive accolades from all walks of life.

Sitting together as iconic buildings along the central axis of the Beijing Olympics’ ‘Bird’s Nest’ and the ‘Water Cube’ venues they said, “The National Speed Skating Oval is not only a world-class sports facility designed to be among the best in the world, but it also brings an international landmark for Beijing and enhances the landscape and urban fabric of the area.”

In the future, NSSO will be the perfect venue for people to visit and play ice sports, just like the children’s game of ice tops, and will be reminded of how history and culture influenced the design of the venue to become a sense of place for the Chinese and a new image of China to the world.


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