The 2022 Winter Olympic Games officially began this week in Beijing.
These Games have been fired by the usual energy and excitement, but they are tempered by concern about the behavior of the host country and some fear about what could happen to athletes that draw attention to it. Usually, as occurred during last year’s Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, the controversies will be overshadowed by performances once the competition begins. This year, however, they may endure, shaping perceptions of the Games themselves.
For China, the Games are yet another opportunity to claim global attention and showcase the country’s extraordinary rise and status. The Olympics are unparalleled spectacles that demonstrate mastery of administration, logistics, technology, hospitality and sports prowess. For the Beijing government, the audience is also internal. Hosting the Games shows the Chinese people that their government has created a nation that can awe the world.
Nothing can be allowed to detract from that message. Protests about Chinese human rights practices — repression in Xinjiang, erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong and even the disappearance of China’s own Olympic athletes in the case of tennis player Peng Shuai — must therefore be silenced. Both the Chinese organizing committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insist that these Games, like all others, are above politics and all attention must focus on the athletes.
A Chinese Olympic official offered a chilling reminder that “Any behavior or speeches that are against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” Athletes have been told to swallow any criticism until they leave China.
The IOC is complicit, washing its hands of any responsibility. Instead, it asserts that its job is to oversee a sporting competition. “We have no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do,” explained John Coates, an IOC vice president. The IOC’s responsibility, he added, is merely “to ensure that there are no human rights abuses in respect of the conduct of the Games within the national Olympic committees or within the Olympic movement.”
For the IOC, the Olympic Games are business, and nothing must be allowed to interfere with the flow of money. China delivered on its first attempt, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. And, as the IOC is increasingly aware, few governments are prepared to meet its terms for hosting. Originally, more than a half dozen countries offered to host the 2022 Games, but most dropped out, many citing a lack of popular support for paying the cost of the Games, typically in the tens of billions of dollars, or putting up with the IOC’s imperious demands.
By the time the IOC voted to award the Games, Beijing and Almaty, in Kazakhstan, were the only two bidders left. The representatives went with the record of success — and the deeper pockets.
As a result, Beijing is now the first city to host the Summer and Winter Games. It will also be the first Winter Olympics host to rely completely on artificial snow, which is inevitable when the city only gets six days of snow per year. That determination to proceed is part of a wider Chinese agenda.
The 2022 Games are intended to be transformative, turning China into a winter sports nation. In 1996, China had 11 ski resorts; more than 300 resorts and 450 ice rinks have been built since 2015. The number of winter sports participants rose as well, reaching 346 million, well surpassing the goal of 300 million, and the industry generated $94 billion in revenue in 2020 and is anticipated to reach $157 billion by 2025.
China also plans to use these Games for the international debut of its digital currency. It has given participants and officials ski gloves and smart watches with built-in payment functions so that they can use the digital yuan, along with cash and Visa credit cards (an official sponsor of the Games) during their stay. Plans have been scaled back, however, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the Chinese government to refuse entry to virtually all foreign visitors.
The Beijing organizing committee is struggling with the frustrations felt by the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee as it tries to ensure that events can be held safely amid a pandemic. It has opted for an even more constricted “bubble” to isolate all Olympic participants — athletes, coaches, team officials, Olympic staff members, contractors, volunteers and journalists — from any interaction with outsiders. All must be vaccinated — or quarantine for 21 days — and all will be tested every day.
There are fears that China will use COVID-19 protocols to affect competitions, disqualifying some athletes to ensure the “proper” outcomes. That sounds far-fetched — until we recall the official IOC findings that Russian security services rigged doping tests during the 2014 Sochi Games to protect Russian athletes.
Friday night’s opening ceremonies were directed by world-reknowned moviemaker Zhang Yimou, who also presided over the 2008 event. While China would prefer an even more spectacular opening, it has been toned down to reflect a more sober moment.
That is consistent with the VIP presence: Only some two dozen world leaders attended, less than a third that made it to the 2008 Games. That diminished presence is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as deep concerns about human rights abuses. A handful of governments announced a diplomatic boycott; a few others, Japan among them, are staying away without explaining why.
That decision reflects a political calculus, one used by all involved. Unfortunately, that silence helps erode whatever moral considerations that once shaped the Olympic spirit.
The Japan Times Editorial Board