Updated: Feb 10, 2022
✦ We may be living in uncertain times but the controversy surrounding the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing is crystal clear and unabating.
The Games, which run from Friday, Feb 4 through Feb 20, with the Paralympics scheduled for March 4-13, should have been an occasion of excitement and pride for the host nation. Instead they have been soured by a catalogue of negative events that have very much been brought on by, ironically, China itself.
When China won the bid and then hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games it was heralded as a new dawn where the emerging super power would excel and show its sporting prowess on the global stage. Having then won the rights to host in 2022, Beijing would make history by being the first city to host both a summer and winter Olympic Games. However, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games sees a country now under the rule of Xi Jinping and the landscape and sentiment is light years away from the positivity leading up to the 2008 Games.
It didn’t have to be this way
The build up to this year’s Winter Games has been fraught with complications, least of all in relation to COVID-19 and the associated health risks which threaten to seriously undermine China’s projected image of the occasion. Chinese authorities have adopted a “zero-COVID” policy which has seen millions of residents in major cities forced into lockdown, the longest of which saw 13 million people in Xi’an confined to their homes for over a month. Similarly, the city of Yuzhou saw its 1.1 million population forced into total lockdown after just three asymptomatic COVID cases were discovered on Jan 4. China is desperate to eradicate any COVID-related threat that may cloud its sports spectacular although actually achieving this seems remote, if not impossible. In efforts to thwart the spread of infection, an impenetrable giant bubble stretching nearly 200 kilometres has been established in the capital that will cocoon over 60,000 athletes, dignitaries, media, support staff and volunteers, and which is active until the Paralympics finishes. Unlike last summer’s pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, where media were permitted to leave the bubble after two weeks and head out into public, nobody will be able to leave the “closed loop” during the Beijing Games.
Everyone inside the bubble must be fully vaccinated or else undergo 21 days of quarantine before entering. Daily virus tests will be conducted and everybody must wear a high-spec mask at all times.
If it sounds a little extreme then it is merely in line with the Communist Party’s tone and focus on zero-COVID cases. There’s no doubt it isn’t a good image but let’s not forget where the coronavirus first emerged and how negligent Chinese authorities were in reporting and handling the outbreak, particularly in allowing citizens to travel overseas when it was clear a serious threat was at hand. COVID has changed the way we live our lives, and not for the better. It has decimated the world’s economy, destroyed communities and, at time of press, tragically left over 367 million people infected and contributed to almost 6 million deaths. There is no doubt it could have been handled better, should have been handled better, a fact that doesn’t escape the memory in a flash. It has generated widespread anger and resentment and, whereas hindsight is a wonderful thing, in all honesty, it didn’t have to be this way.
We’re being watched...
Additional concerns have been raised as to whether the tens of thousands of overseas participants will be safe from China’s vast array of surveillance tools with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab stating on Jan 18 a virus-monitoring app all attendees must use was found to have a “simple but devastating” encryption flaw that could allow personal data including health information and voice messages to leak.
Several western nations and cybersecurity groups have advised foreign athletes participating at the Games to leave personal phones and laptops at home, advising the use of temporary burner phones while in China. Already several academics and human rights’ activists have seen their WeChat messaging accounts restricted or totally disbanded, such is China’s fear that the party may be sullied.
Political relations between China and several countries have become increasingly fractious with the issue of COVID-19 arguably at the front of the queue. However, other contentious issues include human rights abuses, specifically pertaining to the Uyghur Muslim community in Xinjiang where, only last month, the Biden administration claimed China was committing "ongoing genoicide and crimes against humanity", a charge many critics agree with. The situations in Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan have also stoked great controversy, with the latter continually edging towards a very precarious state. There have also been ongoing agitated territorial disputes in the South China Sea that has seen China’s much vilified, aggressive approach completely ignore legislation outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China itself is a signatory. In the sporting domain, the recent case of Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai has also left an unsavoury taste in the mouths of many with the country’s stance on sexual assault and freedom of speech questioned if not severely compromised.
Spectators wearing "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts, referring to the former doubles world number one from China, are pictured in the stands during the women's singles final match between Australia's Ashleigh Barty and Danielle Collins of the US on day thirteen of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 29, 2022.
(Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)
Then, as tensions continued to escalate, Chinese media claimed on Jan 29 that the United States is paying athletes to “create disturbances”.
The China Daily newspaper, citing “sources familiar with the matter”, said there was a plot by Washington to persuade athletes to “play passively” or refuse to take part in competitions and “express discontent toward China”, rewarding those athletes that cooperated financially.
“The sources stressed that Washington’s plan is a new example demonstrating attempts by some anti-China forces in the United States to politicise sports and maliciously disrupt and spoil the Beijing Winter Olympic Games,” the article said.
The US embassy in Beijing refuted the claims, stating that it was an effort by Beijing to “deflect attention from their egregious human rights record”.
In harmony: As reported by China Daily, world-renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, internationally acclaimed Chinese pianist Lang Lang and famous Chinese soprano Lei Jia have united for a brand new song titled Forever You and Me, which is a musical gift to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Watch it on YouTube.
No snow won’t stop the show
There are other issues that are seemingly pushing ties between China and many countries to near bursting point as the clock ticks towards the start of the Games, although those stated above are the ones dominating headlines around the world. So far the US, Australia, UK, Canada and Japan have confirmed they are employing a political boycott whereby no government ministers or officials will attend the Games. China’s Foreign Ministry said such actions had “clearly violated the Olympic spirit” and those boycotting “will pay a price for erroneous actions”, although this was not elaborated on.
China has frequently criticised Western nations politicising sport, something that is “at the very least ironic, if not completely hypocritical”, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
“The fact they are using the Olympic Games as a major political event to project China’s international image – which is a separate political act - is completely ignored,” Tsang said recently.
“The real message is to people in China, how much the Communist Party is able to make China stand tall and make Chinese people proud,” he added. Last but not least there are environmental concerns with Beijing warning on Jan 24 that heavy air pollution is likely during the Games, a problem that has plagued the Chinese capital for years. However, arguably the most bizarre challenge is that many of the outdoor venue sites do not have sufficient or any snowfall to cater for winter sports meaning Beijing will be the first host to rely completely on man-made powder. Whereas the occasion should be a celebration of sport and example of heroic achievement, nobody seems to be really focused on that. It is a great shame that leading into these Games it is the off-field drama and controversy that is taking centre stage although, ultimately, maybe this is just emblematic of the crazy times we are currently living in?
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