Skip to main content

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for the opening ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, on Feb. 4.Carl Court/The Associated Press

The crowd at the halfpipe roared as Eileen Gu secured her second gold medal on Friday, capping a stellar week for China in which the country outstripped its previous best performance at a Winter Olympics.

Chinese success at Beijing 2022 has come both on and off the ice and snow. Ms. Gu and a crop of other new stars delivered a host of medals, in sports China has rarely been competitive in, while around them the “closed-loop” COVID-19 precautions have proved stunningly successful, preventing outbreaks inside the Olympic bubble and China proper.

Athlete protests have not panned out, and any effects of a diplomatic boycott by Washington, Ottawa and a handful of allies were hard to spot.

Supporters of a boycott wanted the West to prevent China from gaining the same kind of propaganda victory from Beijing 2022 as it did from its 2008 Summer Games. But the biggest drain on the soft-power value of these Olympics has come not from China’s enemies, but one of its closest allies: Russia.

It started out so well: President Vladimir Putin’s presence at the opening ceremony provided the type of international legitimacy that the Western boycott was supposed to take away. A summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping produced a lengthy communiqué in which China backed Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion and Moscow endorsed Beijing’s claims over Taiwan, both standing arm-in-arm in opposition to the West.

Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.SPUTNIK/Reuters

“They share a common view on the international situation; they both believe the West is falling, that it’s in a constant crisis, and this gives them a chance to change the status quo,” said Jakub Jakobowski, a senior China fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies. “The communiqué shows they believe they have a chance to be the leaders in changing this status quo.”

Mr. Putin departed China with the relationship stronger than ever, but his actions since then have almost completely overshadowed the Beijing Olympics and Mr. Xi’s moment in the global spotlight.

That the Russian leader would risk angering his most important ally might seem surprising, but Mr. Jakobowski said, “There’s no real trust between Russia and China. At the end of the day, they really care about autonomy within the relationship.”

Ahead of the opening ceremony, there were reports – slapped down by both Moscow and Beijing – that China had requested Russia not proceed with any military action against Ukraine for the extent of the Games. But even with no invasion taking place, the continued buildup of troops and now shelling on the border has dominated headlines worldwide.

Mr. Jakobowski pointed out that Russia’s invasion of Georgia came during the 2008 Games, which were far more important a soft-power push for China, “so the Chinese are aware that this is something Russia does.”

Last week, Mr. Xi engaged in a whirlwind of diplomacy with visiting dignitaries, making up for having not left China since the beginning of the pandemic. But this was overshadowed by the flurry of visitors to the Kremlin, attempting to talk Mr. Putin out of invading.

Russian servicemen drive tanks during military exercises in the Leningrad Region on Feb. 14.Handout ./Reuters

Even Chinese officials have not been able to give their full attention to the Games. Since Mr. Xi’s diplomatic speed dates last week, he and his key advisers have been little heard from, and have not appeared in public. According to The Wall Street Journal, this is because they are hunkered down inside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, discussing what to do in the event Russia does declare war on Ukraine.

Beijing has given its tacit support to Russia in Moscow’s conflict with NATO, but China has always opposed foreign interventions, regardless of who is carrying them out. As well as being a strong critic of U.S. adventurism in the Middle East, China has also never recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and in a call with French President Emmanuel Macron this week, Mr. Xi called for dialogue to resolve tensions over Ukraine.

Not that the crisis in Eastern Europe is the only way Russia is overshadowing China during these Olympics. Even within the context of the Games themselves, Ms. Gu and other Chinese athletes have increasingly become a sideshow to one Russian teenager.

After figure skating phenomenon Kamila Valieva was found to have failed a doping test in December, whether the 15 year old would be permitted to continue and possibly receive a medal soon became the No. 1 story. The scandal also renewed questions over whether she and her teammates – who compete under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee because of a previous doping scandal – should have been at the Games at all.

To an extent, both the doping scandal and Russia’s sabre-rattling over Ukraine could be seen as benefiting China, said Susan Brownell, an expert on the Olympics and Chinese sport at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Russia “becoming the bad guy of the Games … makes China look like a good global citizen by contrast,” she told The Globe and Mail.

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva reacts after the women's free skate program during the Beijing Olympics, on Feb. 17.Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press

Manoj Kewalramani, a China studies fellow at the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution, agreed, saying the “international media’s focus on Ukraine and the Russia-U.S. dynamic has perhaps also meant less critical coverage of developments at the Olympics.”

“So that’s not a bad outcome from Beijing’s point of view,” he said.

Beijing’s ability to appear the more mature actor was undermined somewhat Thursday by Yan Jiarong, a member of the Beijing 2022 organizing team. She used an official International Olympic Committee news conference to declare that Taiwan was part of China and called accusations of forced labour in Xinjiang “lies” and “false information.”

While her statements were in keeping with Chinese policy, the outburst was a break from the relatively controlled posture officials have maintained during the Games and earned a rare rebuke from IOC president Thomas Bach.

But this, too, was soon overshadowed by renewed conflict on the Ukrainian border and the return to the ice of Ms. Valieva. In her final skate on Thursday night, the teenager fell twice, missing out on a medal, and her heartbreak and controversy were front page news around the world.

Despite not gripping the world’s attention perhaps as much as it might have hoped, there may be some soft-power benefit to Beijing from these Games, said Ms. Brownell, even if for many viewers it is simply “the surprise of learning that China has ski resorts and winter sports.”

“In the U.S., the shock that a glamorous world champion like Eileen Gu would choose to represent China over the U.S. might be a lasting memory, with all that it symbolizes,” she said, adding that most of the political controversies surrounding the Games “will largely be forgotten.”

The same thing happened in 2008: protests, boycotts and controversies from China’s previous Olympics have not stayed in most people’s memory – as evidenced by the frequent claims in the run-up that those Games were not as politically charged as this year.

Those Olympics have remained in the collective memory, however – the stunning opening ceremony, the athletic success of stars such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, the symbolism of China opening to and being embraced by the world.

Beijing 2022 was never going to live up to that, largely because of factors outside Chinese control. COVID-19 meant there were no foreign fans, and also that these Games took place just six months after the Tokyo Summer Games, when audiences may still be feeling some Olympics fatigue.

But if there is an overriding reason the Beijing Winter Games end up as just a footnote to February, 2022, in years to come, it will not be because of the pandemic or Ms. Valieva’s controversy, but because of decisions made by her fellow countryman: Mr. Putin.

Our Olympic team has a daily newsletter that lands in your inbox every morning during the Games. Sign up today to join us in keeping up with medals, events and other news.