The Olympic flame may not have reached the National Stadium yet, but Beijing 2022 kicked off on Wednesday with that most maligned of winter sports: curling.
Eight teams took part in the first mixed doubles round robin session, including China, whose Fan Suyuan and Ling Zhi defeated Switzerland’s Jenny Perret and Martin Rios seven stones to six.
Their victory was greeted by loud cheers from the small crowd of spectators in attendance, despite instructions from the Beijing Games organizers that people should “avoid shouting, cheering and singing” and “show support or celebrate by clapping instead.” (This rule appears to have been forgotten by officials, too: The warm-up announcer told the crowd to “let me hear your voice” at the start of proceedings.)
At the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year, no spectators were allowed, making for a disappointing atmosphere at many events. In the run-up to these Winter Olympics, while clear that foreigners would not be invited because of COVID-19 precautions, the Beijing organizers had made a point of promising fans would be in attendance. But plans to allow the general public in had to be scaled back last month after coronavirus outbreaks in several cities, including parts of Beijing.
“Given the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to ensure the safety of all participants and spectators, it has been decided that tickets should not be sold anymore but be part of an adapted program that will invite groups of spectators to be present on site during the Games,” organizers said in a statement last month.
In practice, on Wednesday this meant around a hundred fans, all provided with blue Beijing 2022 flags to wave during the proceedings. It is unclear exactly how these invited crowds are selected, or how much interest they may have in the sport they end up watching, but Wednesday night’s curling crowd were enthusiastic enough, cheering and applauding both their own team and those of the other countries taking part.
When the match went to an extra end to break the tie, there were shouts of “jia you” or “come on” from the Chinese crowd, and people stood up in their seats to cheer as Fan and Ling secured victory.
Curling is being held in the National Aquatics Centre, the iconic bubble-shaped building known as the Water Cube in 2008, where American swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the Summer Olympics, now rebranded as the Ice Cube.
The invited spectators sat in separate stands from the larger-than-usual number of media in attendance, many journalists taking advantage of a break from the monotony that has been the Olympic bubble. After the event, spectators could be seen leaving the venue on foot, while the media, forbidden to do so, were loaded onto the buses that carry them everywhere within the closed loop.
Enthusiasm for curling wasn’t limited to the stadium itself. The sport was the top trending topic on Weibo after the match, perhaps for the first time.
The Beijing Olympics will kick off formally on Friday with a ceremony at the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest. The torch relay through Beijing started Wednesday, with former NBA star Yao Ming taking part, as well as a People’s Liberation Army soldier wounded in a border clash with India.