The road to any Olympics is complicated by logistical problems, but Beijing is turning into the most rutted in recent memory.
Last week: Should we all be going to a party hosted by a country that has maybe disappeared one of its own athletes?
This week: Should we going to a party if someone could arrive at it with a mutated virus in tow?
The people forced to answer most of these questions will be people least in control of the outcomes – the athletes. They don’t make the rules. They don’t call the shots. But they are the ones who act as town crier for the people who do.
On Monday, it was curling’s turn to duck and weave through the PR thicket.
Canada’s next men’s and women’s Olympic teams were determined over the weekend. Jennifer Jones (gold medalist at Sochi 2014) leads the women’s side; Brad Gushue (gold medalist at Turin 2006) leads the men.
You don’t need me to tell you how they feel about this opportunity. This is their Woodstock, and both have the rare opportunity to headline it a second time. They were both over the moon.
Though no one’s going to say it out loud, this is a more tempting opportunity because of recent history.
Canada’s curlers imploded at the last Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Neither the women’s nor men’s team won a medal.
It wasn’t just the results that disappointed. Canadian curling was tight as a drum in Korea.
Every other national team on either side of the gender divide came off as light and fun – which is the essence of curling, even at the most elite level. Whenever you saw Canada in action, either on the sheet or in the scrums afterward, the word that leapt to mind was “robotic.”
You could feel the national hammerlock on this sport – competitively and spiritually – being loosened in real time.
Since then, things haven’t bounced back to normal. Canada no longer wins at the world championships as a matter of course. It is just in the mix.
Beijing represents a pristine opportunity to replant our flag on the biggest stage. Gushue and Jones would seem to be two optimal candidates to do the job.
Neither of them are going to start banging their chests about the quality of Canadian curling – why provide opponents with bulletin-board material? But it doesn’t take much forensic reading to spot the inherent sense of superiority.
“We want to stay at the forefront of being a curling powerhouse,” Gushue said. “If we’re not careful, that could be taken from us in the next 10 or 15 years.”
That long, eh?
As you’d imagine, Monday’s back-to-back quickie pressers featured nothing but good vibes. Gushue felt relaxed enough to mention he felt “a little bit hung over.” Jones was aglow as she talked about how wonderful it is to represent a country as great as Canada.
The only wrinkle came when both were (separately) asked about the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
Both gave the same answer, using the same inflections.
Gushue: “I’m sure the [Canadian Olympic Committee] is going to make sure we as athletes are safe. I have full trust in them.”
Jones: “The COC’s doing a phenomenal job ensuring that our health and safety is top of their minds. We have a lot of confidence in the COC and the medical staff.”
You can’t blame either of them for coming well prepped for a question they knew was coming. Expect a lot more of this going forward.
Every Olympics has its themes. Beijing 2022 will be the Scripted Olympics. No one from any country is going to show up there without their talking points well in order.
As more teams are set in the coming months, these introductory exercises will become more fraught.
You’ll have lugers talking about infection risks at a time when infection may be spiralling and figure skaters getting philosophical about freedom of speech. I’d offer rent money to hear from the NHLer who is willing to wade into the Uyghur question, because that’s money I fear no risk of losing.
Mostly this will be an effort at avoidance. You can’t blame the athletes for that – if they have degrees, they tend to be more by way of kinesiology than international relations. They aren’t equipped to have a public argument about what going to China means. They only know that in order to do their jobs, that’s where they’ve been told to go.
We’ve seen versions of this before. People shouted about terrorism at London 2012; politics and terrorism at Sochi; and politics (different sorts) at Rio 2016 and Pyeongchang. But in all those instances, you could turn aside most questions with a “I don’t know a whole lot about that.”
In 2021, that answer no longer flies. If you don’t know a whole lot about that (whatever “that” is), then you are presumed to be part of the problem.
Also, there’s the issue of timing. Usually, these difficult questions don’t pop up until a few days before the start of the Games, because that’s when the general public’s attention becomes focused.
This time it’s already focused. That leaves a lot of column inches to fill between now and February 4.
Avoiding saying the wrong thing will be the competition Beijing’s athletes engage in long before the sort they’re used to begins. And like the real thing, someone has to lose that competition, too.