China is having a great Olympics, at least that’s the official line.
The hosts of Beijing 2022 are on track to match, if not exceed, their best showing at a Winter Games. Viewership is through the roof domestically, and people have gone crazy for mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, driving up the prices of the plush toy to 10 times’ retail value.
China is not a traditional winter sports country: The only time it ranked within the top 10 in medals was at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, a far cry from its long-standing dominance in the Summer Games. With domestic spectators barred from events at the last minute because of rising COVID-19 cases, there was some question about how much the Chinese audience would engage with these Olympics.
According to the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, the doubters have been proven wrong. “Beijing 2022 has already become the most-viewed Winter Games ever in China,” spokesman Mark Adams told reporters this week. Per state-run news agency Xinhua, the country is in the “grip of ice-and-snow fever.”
Whether this is actually true is debatable. Certainly, the Olympics are dominating TV coverage and social-media chatter, though the latter has focused more on the athletes as celebrities than the sports they’re taking part in. But Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based analyst and author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best, said the vibe is “a world away from 2008,” when the country last staged an Olympics.
“I don’t necessarily get a sense that everyone has Olympic fever,” Mr. Dreyer said. “It’s winter, so it’s not outdoors and festive, and there’s COVID. You’ve got no international spectators so it doesn’t feel like a big international event. And local people can’t really go either.”
Viewership is up in China, but that could be driven simply by the country being the host and competing in all events for the first time, said Heather Dichter, an expert on the Olympics at De Montfort University in Britain.
In other parts of the world, particularly North America, people aren’t tuning in. Even compared to the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, which had similar time zone challenges, fewer Canadians and Americans are watching than ever, according to statistics released this week, though this may yet shift as the medals stack up.
Medals definitely help. The biggest breakout moment for the domestic audience so far has been American-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu’s come-from-behind gold in the big air event on Monday.
The reaction to her win was so exuberant that Weibo, one of China’s largest social platforms, was briefly knocked offline by the flood of posts. Inside the Olympic bubble, hundreds of volunteers waited outside the medals plaza in the freezing cold to cheer Ms. Gu as she emerged, generating a level of noise rarely heard at these mostly spectator-free Games.
Ms. Gu, competing for China, was already the face of Beijing 2022, and her win sealed her ascension to superstardom, but the 18-year-old has not been without missteps. Asked how she was able to use Instagram and other services blocked by China’s Great Firewall, Ms. Gu responded flippantly that anyone can download a virtual private network, or VPN, to get around the restrictions.
This sparked anger among many Chinese internet users when the remarks were shared online. VPNs are, in fact, extremely hard to come by for those who, unlike Ms. Gu, lack access to foreign app stores, and those who do acquire them risk punishment.
Some users posted screenshots of Ms. Gu’s comment along with the saying, “Why don’t they eat minced meat?” Akin to Marie Antoinette’s famous line about cake, the phrase was supposedly uttered by one of China’s emperors during a famine.
Other athletes have come under more sustained fire on the Chinese internet, not least Ms. Gu’s fellow Californian on Team China, Zhu Yi. After the figure skater cost her country a chance of winning a medal in the team event, she came in for intense abuse online. South Korean athletes who complained about alleged favouritism by Chinese referees in speed skating have also been attacked, as has Nathan Chen, the U.S. figure skater who won gold on Thursday, over remarks seen as critical of China.
There seemed to be an acknowledgement toward the end of this week that nationalist rhetoric was getting too heated for a Games with the motto “Together for a Shared Future.” Xinhua has sought to dampen down controversy over a snowboard judging error that resulted in Canada’s Max Parrot getting gold over China’s Su Yiming, while in an editorial published late Thursday, the state-run Global Times said “the true charm of the Olympics is not only the higher, faster, stronger competitive level it presents, but also the spirit of togetherness it carries.”
This fits with the more positive, politics-free vibe that Chinese officials had been cultivating for the Games, one they used to dismiss any and all criticism in the run-up.
Such messaging could be seen in the response to criticism over the choice of a Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony. Beijing has been accused of widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and Canada and the U.S. staged a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics over this issue.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the decision “reflects that China’s policy of vigorously developing winter sports and promoting people’s health is benefiting people of all ethnic groups, and that China is a big family boasting ethnic unity.”
While the choice of Dinigeer Yilamujiang – a previously unknown cross country skier whose best finish was 43rd in this week’s events – kept the Uyghur issue in the headlines for a few extra days, the “political narrative has definitely taken a backseat to the sports stories,” De Montfort University’s Prof. Dichter said.
“Once the sport starts, everyone gets caught up in the excitement and the drama,” she added. “What will be interesting is whether any athletes say things once they leave China.”
For Uyghurs abroad, this shift was expected, but still disappointing. Kabir Qurban, a Vancouver-based activist who has called on athletes to protest at the Games, said it was unfortunate the main complaints coming from those in Beijing was about “how cold their meals are.”
“They are clearly fine with criticizing the CCP’s catering, but yet are reluctant to stand up for human rights,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Rayhan Asat, a fellow at Yale Law School whose brother Ekpar has been detained in China since 2016, said, “Naturally, the public attention and our fascination have shifted toward the accomplishments of the athletes.
“Despite this, I hope the media will vigorously exercise its responsibility to shine a light on what’s really happening under the facade of the sports extravaganza and keep reporting at every opportunity throughout the Olympics,” she said. “The world should know that the reality is a country that is accused of committing genocide is glorifying itself on the world stage.”
It’s unclear whether concerns over Xinjiang are one of the reasons viewership is down in North America, though Prof. Dichter noted, too, that these Games, even compared to Tokyo last year, “are far more the COVID Olympics.”
Stories about athletes missing out because of testing positive, as well as accounts of the myriad restrictions for those in Beijing, may be turning people off who would prefer the Olympics be an escape from the pandemic.
That these Games have gone ahead at all, without a Tokyo-style delay, and so far without any major outbreaks, will definitely be seen as a win by Beijing, said Mr. Dreyer, the analyst and author.
“They wanted to show that they could hold a pandemic Games better than anyone and I think you’d have to say that they’ve done it,” he said. “At least so far.”
Prof. Dichter agreed, though she pointed out that claiming victory is an Olympic tradition. “Every organizer always says this is a success and the IOC president always ends with: ‘This was the best Games ever.’”
For the hosts at least, that may already be true. The rest of China, let alone the wider world, might still need some convincing.
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