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Olympics return to a transformed China amidst pandemic and protests

Volunteers pose for photo next to the installation of Bing Dwen Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon, mascots of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The Beijing Winter Olympics begin in a week, placing sports front and centre after preparations were hampered by diplomatic boycotts and the COVID-19 pandemic, which confined the Games to a closely guarded bubble.

The news: Beijing will be the first city to hold both the Summer and Winter Olympics, and some of the sites from the 2008 Games will be reused, notably the Bird’s Nest stadium, where the opening ceremony will once again be directed by renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

  • Almost everything else is different.
  • The Winter Olympics will be hosted by a country that has grown more wealthier, more powerful, and, under President Xi Jinping, more autocratic and increasingly at odds with the West, than the 2008 Summer Games, which shone in what was a rising China’s entry on the world stage.
  • China has isolated itself with a zero-tolerance approach in the COVID-19 era, cancelling practically all international flights, forcing Olympic athletes and others to fly directly inside a Games bubble on charter planes.
  • The Olympics have once again brought attention to China’s human rights record, which critics believe has deteriorated since 2008, prompting the U.S. to declare Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims genocide and a diplomatic boycott from the U.S. and other countries.
  • China has frequently slammed the politicisation of the Olympics, rejecting charges of mistreatment.
People wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) work at the Wukesong Arena, ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

What’s going on: The Games, however, are poised to begin amid escalating geopolitical tensions, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is likely to be in Beijing, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, stationing soldiers on the Ukraine border.

  • On the streets of Beijing, the 2008 summer carnival frenzy has given way to resignation over COVID-19 limitations enforced to stem the spread of recent small clusters, especially the highly transmissible Omicron form.
  • There is also dissatisfaction among potential viewers who are unable to get tickets because none will be available to the general public. Instead, events will be attended by minimal, curated crowds who will be subject to tight COVID-19 regulations.
  • The Games will be held inside a closed loop that is far tighter than the Tokyo Games last summer, and will be put to the test by Omicron, which is rampant in many western countries with strong winter sports.
  • Some delegations have advised members to bring burner phones because they are concerned about information security.
Bing Dwen Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon, mascots of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, are displayed at a souvenir shop at the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

What’s they’re saying: Athletes and human rights organisations have also expressed concern about the dangers of speaking out on politically sensitive issues while in China.

  • The controversy surrounding Chinese tennis player and former Olympian Peng Shuai, who accused a retired senior politician of sexually assaulting her and then vanished for several weeks, added gasoline to the fire of criticism directed at China’s hosting of the tournament.
  • While Peng later clarified that her social media remark was misinterpreted, the Women’s Tennis Association suspended competitions in China out of concern for her safety.
  • One American Olympian stated that she would not speak out on human rights issues because she feared it would jeopardise her safety.
  • Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has made it clear that athletes are free to express their opinions in press conferences and interviews within the bubble, but not during competition or medal ceremonies, a Chinese official recently stated that behaviour by athletes that violates the Olympic spirit or Chinese rules could result in punishment.
Workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) sample the environment for virus detection at a restaurant inside the Main Press Centre ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, China January 26, 2022. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

In addition: Following the withdrawal of numerous bid countries, including favourite Oslo, Beijing was awarded the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2015. Despite having little tradition in winter sports and much less snow, the IOC chose Beijing as a safe bet.

  • Despite fears about the environmental consequences of large snowmaking, China rewarded that trust with efficient preparation. It has cleaned Beijing’s typically smoggy skies and planted a massive amount of trees.
  • Unlike the Summer Games in Tokyo, which were postponed a year due to COVID-19, there was never any doubt that the Beijing Games would be held – no matter what.
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