China’s Challenge: Can Sport Overcome the Winter Olympics Controversy?

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Separated from its host city by a maze of high fences, thermal gates and facial recognition cameras, this is an Olympics like no other.

Politics, protests and Covid protocols have become an inevitable part of the preparation for these Games, and on the contrary, events taking place outside the sporting arena over the next two weeks will receive as much attention as actions. on ice and snow.

China’s response will be a major test for the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, who is preparing for an unprecedented third term in office this fall.

“The world’s eyes are on China, and China is ready,” Xi said Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony.

For China’s ruling Communist Party, the Games will provide a moment of national triumph as Beijing becomes the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It is also the first major global event inside China since the country closed its borders two years ago following the first outbreak of the coronavirus.

But among the Chinese public, enthusiasm for the Winter Games pales in comparison to 2008, when locals gathered in their thousands across Beijing to watch the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics on big screens. audiences, eager to be part of history. This year, few viewing parties are taking place in a capital under severe lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions.

“I think the Games are going to be declared a great success by the Communist Party – whether they are seen as such by other nations is another issue,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at the University. Hong Kong Baptist. .

defend the bubble

In an effort to keep the Games Covid-free – and to prevent the virus from spreading to the general population – Chinese authorities have built an extensive network of bubbles, officially known as the “closed loop”, which separates the Games from the host city.

Already more than 300 cases of coronavirus – around a third of which are linked to athletes and team officials – have been detected in recent Olympic arrivals in Beijing, including American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans. Chinese organizers did not appear concerned, saying the situation was within their “expected controllable range”.

Inside the bubble, the Covid protocol dominates all aspects of life, from daily testing to moving between sites.

Deep control requires massive organizational and manpower efforts, but it is also aided by technology – which the organizers were keen to show.

A worker waits for a robot to process an order in the dining hall of the main press center for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
At Beijing’s main media center, workers wearing masks, goggles and face shields work alongside robots that prepare burgers, mix cocktails, sweep the floor and spray clouds of disinfectant; smart surveillance cameras to watch epidemic prevention data of people as soon as they enter the place, triggering alarms and tracing all their close contacts as soon as an anomaly is reported.

For those new to China’s “zero-Covid” approach, the meticulous scrutiny is both confusing and alarming. Often, Covid prevention makes simple tasks unnecessarily difficult. Walking is rarely an option to bypass the “closed loop”, even if the destination is only a few blocks away. Instead, participants must take dedicated vehicles.

In “closed-loop” buses, drivers are isolated behind a thick transparent screen intended to protect against the spread of the virus – unfortunately, it is also largely soundproof. Passengers who don’t know where to disembark are forced to shout through the screen or rely on hand gestures.

“In terms of public health measures, this is the most ambitious and strict Olympics in history,” said Yanzhong Huang, public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Throughout the pandemic, the Communist Party has staked its political legitimacy on its ability to contain the virus better than other countries, especially Western democracies, and as such is unwilling to take any risks.

But the Chinese authorities have a delicate balance to respect. While ostensibly strict measures risk unnecessarily disrupting the Games, the last thing Beijing wants to see is an outbreak raging inside the bubble – or worse, spreading across the capital and beyond.

Officials dressed in personal protective equipment wait to clear Olympic accreditation for people arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 24.

Political controversy

The official motto of the Winter Games – ubiquitous on billboards and banners across the city – is “Together for a shared future”. But before, the event only served to highlight the growing rift between China and the West.

The controversy has been mounting for months. Rights groups have called for a boycott of the Games to protest China’s human rights record, its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang – which Washington has called genocide – and its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s silence on Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian, after accusing a former party leader of sexual assault, has further amplified those calls.

In December, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, followed by allies including Britain, Australia and Canada. Last week, a coalition of more than 200 organizations called on more nations to join the diplomatic boycott.

Protesters hold signs as they cross the Golden Gate Bridge during a protest against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in San Francisco, California on February 3.

China ignored criticism and lashed out at the West for politicizing the Olympics. But that didn’t stop him from using the event to get his own political message across.

As the torch relay began this week, state media reported that a Chinese soldier involved in a deadly border clash with Indian troops was among the few chosen to carry the Olympic flame.

This decision immediately caused outrage in India. On Thursday evening, the day before the official opening of the Games, New Delhi said it would join diplomatic boycotts led by the United States.

“It is indeed regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicize an event like the Olympics,” Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said in a televised address as he announced the withdrawal. India’s top diplomat from the opening and closing ceremonies.

What a difference 14 years makes

When the curtain finally goes up on Friday, the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Games will look markedly different to that of 2008. Under the cloud of Covid and the international backlash, it will be a much more low-key affair – with a whole different guest list .

Of just over 20 presidents, prime ministers, heads of state and royalty who will attend the event, around half are from authoritarian countries – with Russian President Vladimir Putin expected to feature prominently in the spotlight. The leaders of the major democratic powers will notably be absent.

That’s a far cry from 2008, when then-US President George W. Bush attended the opening ceremonies and was seen throughout the Games cheering on Team USA. Her father, former President George HW Bush, also attended the event as the honorary captain of Team USA.

“China is different now, the world is different,” said Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.”

While the 2008 Beijing Olympics were seen as China’s coming out party on the world stage, ‘now Beijing is pretending’ we are here, we are strong, we are powerful enough, you have to deal with us respect and accept the new China,'” Su said.

In the years between the two Olympics, China established itself as a rising superpower. Its economy has tripled, ranking second only to the United States. Its military might and technological prowess grew fast and far, as did its global influence.

Socially distanced spectators watch ahead of the men's individual skating short program team event on February 04.

The sense of pride is palpable among the Chinese volunteers working inside the Olympic bubble. For most fresh-faced university students, they were born just a few years before the 2008 Olympics and grew up seeing their country’s growing prosperity and strength.

Several volunteers told CNN it was the first time they had spent the Lunar New Year holiday away from family. Like foreign visitors, Chinese volunteers and staff are not allowed to leave the “closed loop” until after the Games – and not until they have completed three weeks of hotel quarantine.

Yet many consider it worth the effort, even for those whose only duty is to stand in sub-zero temperatures at a bus stop near the ski slopes in the mountains, helping participants navigate a system extremely confusing transportation.

For others, it’s a harder sacrifice.

On Tuesday, Lunar New Year’s Day, a mother stood outside Beijing’s main media center, waving to her two young sons behind layers of barricades and fencing.

“Mom, I miss you. Happy Lunar New Year! the youngest son shouted, waving at him from the other side, a few feet away.

It was the longest time she had been separated from her family, she said. Working for the Beijing Organizing Committee inside the bubble, she is not allowed to return home at the end of her working day. Instead, she lives in a designated hotel close enough to see her home.

“It’s really hard for me because as a mother, I’ve never…since they were born, we’ve been apart for so long,” she said. “But it’s worth it… I’m very proud.”

She remarked on how different things looked in 2008. “(At) that time, everyone was really excited and (it was) just a big party,” she said. “But this time because of Covid-19, everything is very difficult.”

CNN’s Selina Wang and Simone McCarthy contributed.

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