Hosting the Winter Olympics during a pandemic was always going to test the Chinese government, by putting its ever-growing ability to exercise political control and virus containment on a collision course with its enthusiasm for international prestige and status.
The 2022 Winter Games, which open on Friday, are being held at a time of particularly intense western criticism of China over human rights abuses, from the mass persecution of Uyghurs in far western Xinjiang – labelled a genocide by the United States – and other groups including Tibetans, to the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms.
China denies human rights abuses, but activists have dubbed the gathering in Beijing the “Genocide Games”, and western powers from the US to the UK have announced a diplomatic boycott of the opening ceremony. The exiled campaign group World Uyghur Congress urged: “No one should want another Olympics like this.”
There is so little trust of the host nation that many countries have told their athletes to take burner phones, and cyber security experts warned a health app for Olympians could spy on them and steal health and other personal data.
China men’s ice hockey team at a training session on Friday. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images
Further censure has come from environmentalists who have warned for years about the negative impact of hosting the Games – which need a lot of water for snow and ice – in an area of intense water scarcity.
Yet Beijing weathered the controversy when it hosted the Summer Olympics, in 2008, said Susan Brownell of University of Missouri-St Louis, an expert on Chinese sports who was in China for those Games.
Then, high-profile protests dogged the global torch relay, violent suppression of protests in Tibet put Chinese oppression there on the news agenda, there was pressure on leaders to skip the opening ceremony and environmentalists warned about the intense pollution that shrouded Beijing.
Mascots for the Winter Olympics. Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters
But, once the competition began, the focus shifted to the athletes. Beijing’s calculation is, no doubt, that the same thing will happen this year. “Right now, the political and investigative journalists have the front page, but once the Games start, it will be the sports journalists,” Brownell said.
Covid and control
Covid has conveniently spared Beijing any worries about protests from the stands, which would have been the most likely arena for political activism in a country where public demonstrations by citizens are in effect banned.
Competitors and the few other foreigners given permission to come to Beijing, including coaches, support staff and journalists, will fly into a sealed-off Olympic world, a “closed loop” of venues and hotels in just three locations, connected by their own transport vehicles, travelling in their own lanes.
It is staffed by Chinese workers who are not allowed to return to their own homes without a long period of quarantine.
People queuing for a Covid test in Beijing last week. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Authorities are so bent on total separation that they have warned Beijing residents against helping Olympians if a loop vehicle crashes.
For Victor Cha, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, these rules seem like a metaphor for how China’s communist leadership wants the Games to play out overall – in a closed system fully under their control.
“Covid has really given them the excuse to completely lock down everything. They want to have complete control over the picture of the Olympics and that helps,” he said.
There will be an official international protest, in the form of a diplomatic boycott by western governments including the US and the UK, but their absence is unlikely to be a major headache for officials in Beijing, or feature prominently in news coverage through the Games.
“They shrug off the diplomatic boycotts. It feeds the domestic narrative that the west is trying to steal China’s moment in sun, and they can say leaders are not coming anyway because of Covid.”
The shutdown of international participation in the Games has put particular political pressure on the athletes, now the only people with a platform to make a statement.
“It is impossible to separate sports from business and politics. More than a big sporting occasion, this is also a political event,” said Mark Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.
The human cost of China’s political controls has been thrown into the spotlight in a very personal way for athletes by the treatment of one of the country’s best-known, most successful Olympians, tennis star Peng Shuai.
Last year, she vanished from public view after accusing a former senior Communist party official of coercing her into a sexual relationship, and her allegations were scrubbed from the internet.
Chinese president Xi Jinping in Shanxi province last week. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
After international outrage, she made a series of stage-managed public appearances inside China, including with Olympic officials, which have done little to assuage concern about whether she is acting with free will.
Her treatment was highlighted by protesters at this month’s Australian Open, who wore T-shirts saying simply “Where is Peng Shuai?”. Organisers banned them, then backtracked on the ban.
Perhaps concerned by the swell of support for Peng, China has taken the unusual step of going beyond the International Olympic Committee bans on athletes taking political stands.
If they break Chinese laws, with “behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit”, athletes will face “certain punishment”, Yang Shu, a member of the Beijing Organising Committee, told a news conference this month.This rhetoric may be intended mostly as deterrent, analysts say. An athlete’s arrest over a political protest would be shocking, and likely to become an enduring image of an event that Beijing wants remembered as a sporting and logistical triumph.
Rob Koehler of Global Athlete, an advocacy group for sportspeople, said they have reluctantly advised competitors to save protests or criticism of China for when they have finished competing and returned home. “That is the hardest and most outrageous thing we have had to say, given how hard we pushed for them to have the right to basic freedom of expression,” he said.
Even if China manages to side-step an inflammatory protest – or an inflammatory response – at the Games, the virus that might once have looked like a gift to a government bent on control has become more of a threat to a successful Olympics, with the highly contagious Omicron circulating widely.
If an outbreak knocks out high-profile athletes, or significantly diminishes the number of competitors, it could start to undermine the events.
Beijing announced on Saturday that, even before the Games had begun, the number of cases in the Olympic village had jumped from two to 19. Cases among athletes and team officials exceeded those among media and “other stakeholders” for the first time. There has already been disruption to qualifying competitions after athletes tested positive. At the US figure skating championships, Brownell said some athletes developed Covid between competitions, and despite taking extreme precautions.
“They had been masking, observing social distancing; the pairs team had only private lessons in the rink with their coach and didn’t know where they had got it. It created quite a panic at the championships themselves,” Brownell said.
Ironically, China’s success with controlling earlier variants of Covid has left it particularly vulnerable, public health experts say. Its domestic vaccines are ineffective against Omicron, and because there have still been only a few cases in a country of more than 1.4 billion people, there is almost no natural immunity.
A vulnerable population and an unevenly distributed healthcare system makes the potential of a Covid outbreak terrifying. The devastation that ripped through Wuhan in the earliest days of the pandemic could still be unleashed on the rest of China, and fear of this has almost certainly contributed to the intense testing and quarantine rules.
These factors have affected how the rest of the world, or at least audiences in markets such as the US, will experience the Games. The broadcaster NBC is keeping its commentators at home, covering Beijing from thousands of miles away.
Restrictions on media coverage of the last Games, the Summer Olympics in Japan held last year after a year’s delay, diminished the viewing experience for many of the millions of people who wanted to follow from home.
“My personal feeling was that coverage of the Tokyo Games really lost something. It was pretty clear they didn’t invest the same amount of money, the coverage was not as glossy and aesthetically pleasing,” said Brownell.
“Now, with commentators not actually being in Beijing, that’s going to be even more marked. I think the pandemic restrictions could have an impact on how the TV and social media audiences see these Olympics.”
There may also be less promotion. In a sign perhaps of how these Olympics are among the most controversial in recent decades, sponsors who pay eye-watering sums to be connected with the Games have not been flaunting those links in the west as they have done in the run-up to previous iterations of the competition.
For years China has forced heavy penalties on sports personalities, companies and managers who risked the slightest public criticism of its politics.
A 2019 tweet by Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong was estimated to have cost the National Basketball Association hundreds of millions of dollars after he was allowed to stay in his job.
But sponsors in the west are wary of being accused of pandering to China. Perhaps because they are caught between Beijing and Washington, there has been no pre-Games campaign to spur excitement in the US from the card payment giant Visa, Coca-Cola or Procter & Gamble, the Wall Street Journal reported.
One game, two worlds
The framing in China of the Beijing Winter Games, however, is drastically different from that outside the country – focused on igniting national pride, and using the Games to boost participation in sport and expand the domestic winter sports industry.
Chinese citizens’ participation in sport has been on the rise since the 2008 Games, said Shushu Chen, a lecturer in sport policy and management at the University of Birmingham, who has been tracking the impact of the Summer Games in Beijing and London.
Chen noted that compared with London, residents in Beijing were “ostensibly more positive about the inspirational effects of the Olympic Games, which can perhaps be explained by sociocultural contextual differences between the two cases”.
Dreyer, who has lived in Beijing since 2007, observed that the wave of enthusiasm in China for winter sports began in 2015, when the country won the hosting rights. “China will not top the medals table this year, but it will probably do better than it has ever done before. And it will have many more athletes competing in the Winter Games than previously.”
Inside China, the Games are already being hailed as a triumph for Beijing and its ability to rally against the virus, and against western criticism. Internationally, these Games may be remembered very differently.