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When the Winter Games begin on Feb. 4, rhetoric will meet reality for a Communist state that wants the event to be a carefully staged show of soft power

At Beijing's airport, an employee passes a poster of Olympic mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, a panda, and his Paralympic counterpart Shuey Rhon Rhon, a Chinese lantern. The Beijing Winter Olympics begin on Feb. 4, and the Paralympics follow on March 4.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images


Dressed in down jackets and N95 face masks, the crowd of some 500 volunteers and staff packed into a courtyard in Yanqing, a suburb north of Beijing, as the Olympic Village opened. Raising their fists in the air, they chanted: “Rest assured, my Party, I am here for the Winter Olympics!”

Elsewhere across the capital the slogan “together for a shared future” is ubiquitous, as are the cartoon faces of Bing Dwen Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon, the Olympic and Paralympic mascots. Tight security is noticeable, with soldiers standing guard outside the main subway stations.

China is going all out for the Winter Games, which open on Feb. 4 with a ceremony at the Bird’s Nest, the stadium made iconic by the 2008 Summer Games. Those Olympics were a huge success for China, proof for many of the soft-power value of playing host to such mega events.

In his New Year’s address for 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to recreate this triumph: “We will spare no effort to present a great Games to the world. The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready!”

But 2022 is not 2008, and the Winter Games are not the Summer Olympics. The gamble that China is taking this time around is far riskier, and the potential payoff much smaller. By the time it’s all over, the country’s leaders may be asking themselves whether it was all worth it.

IOC chief Thomas Bach announces the winning bid for 2022 in July of 2015; the same day, people celebrate outside Beijing's Olympic stadium, the Bird's Nest.Joshua Paul and Mark Schiefelbein/AP

During the bidding for the 2022 Games, Beijing presented itself as the “reliable and risk-free choice.” Never mind that the Chinese capital had no mountains and scant snow, or that winter sports were not popular in China. The country had pulled it off in 2008 and could do it again. Beijing organizers also vowed to do it at a far lower cost, and with less impact on the environment, amid concerns over the negative effects previous Games have had.

The budget for Beijing 2022 was set at US$3.9-billion, a fraction of Pyeongchang’s price tag of US$14-billion, and nowhere near the staggering US$51-billion Russia spent on the 2014 Sochi Games. (Budgets tend to overrun and the Beijing plan did not include all of the infrastructure investments, such as a new high-speed rail line linking Olympic sites, so the final cost may be much higher.)

Beijing organizers had not expected to win the 2022 Games – the bid was seen as a stage setter for 2026 – but after four other potential hosts dropped out, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved China’s bid over that of Almaty, Kazakhstan, by a narrow margin, making Beijing the first city to hold both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

“We know China will deliver on its promises,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in 2015, and the country has. New venues have been built in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, connected to central Beijing by high-speed rail and covered with artificial snow pumped out by “green-powered” machines. (Artificial snow is becoming something of a Winter Olympics tradition amid a warming world climate: both Pyeongchang and Sochi relied on fake flakes.) Few were expecting this to be a challenge: Gian Franco Kasper, then-head of the International Ski Federation, was speaking for many observers in 2019 when he said “everything is easier in dictatorships.”

As Mr. Bach arrived in Beijing this week to meet with President Xi, he announced that “China is now a winter sports country, and this is the start of a new era for global winter sports.”

At top, an artificial snow machine pumps out powder outside one of the athletes' villages in Beijing; at bottom, an ice maker sprays over an Olympic logo at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre.Kevin Frayer and Carl Court/Getty Images

But Beijing 2022 is facing challenges far greater than creating snow where it never falls. Eight countries, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games, citing China’s woeful record on human rights, and particularly the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which the Canadian Parliament has said amounts to “genocide.”

A diplomatic boycott means only that officials stay away, however. Large delegations of athletes are still competing, and these countries will still take part in the Parade of Nations that opens the Olympics.

Many countries have declined to sign on to the boycott – French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed it as “insignificant and symbolic” – but calls for countries to snub Beijing 2022 still damage the prestige of the event, as does the widespread media coverage of demonstrations over Xinjiang and Tibet, said Heather Dichter, an expert on the Olympics at De Montfort University in Britain.

The absence of world leaders may also have more of an effect than many people predict. “These mega events are a very important place for networking between the world’s elites,” said Susan Brownell, author of the 2008 book, Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China. She noted that “if you look at Beijing 2008 or London 2012, more heads of state attended the opening ceremonies than even Davos.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping, along with almost every other top leader other than Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has not left the country, attending global events such as the recent UN climate summit by video link. During this time, there has also been little reason for world leaders to visit China, so in-person diplomacy has been severely limited, and Beijing may come to view the Olympics as a missed opportunity on this front.

“Ultimately, we won’t know the full impact of this diplomatic boycott until some time after,” Dr. Dichter said.

COVID-19 precautions in Beijing: At the airport, top, workers in biohazard suits work at a credential validation desk; at a hotel included in the Olympic 'bubble,' bottom, a guard looks out a small window in the fence as a police officer passes by.Jae C. Hong/AP; Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Beijing organizers may have priced in the risk of a boycott when they bid for the Games in 2015, but one factor they could not have predicted was the coronavirus.

The pandemic already caused the delay of the 2020 Summer Olympics for a year, and when the Tokyo Games did eventually go ahead, it was amid spiking cases across Japan, angry calls for the event’s cancellation, and without spectators, for the most part.

With greater time to prepare, Beijing organizers clearly thought they could outdo Tokyo, promising a “closed loop management system” that would enable athletes and spectators to proceed as normal within a tightly policed bubble, despite some occasional contradictions. (Athletes have been advised to avoid hugging each other, for instance, but thousands of condoms have also been handed out.)

So far, their efforts seem to be working: while cases have been detected among the hundreds of people travelling to the Olympic Village, they have been swiftly detected and quarantined, and no cases involved athletes or team officials, organizers said.

With new outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants popping up in recent weeks – small by international standards, but a concern for almost COVID-free China – plans to allow local spectators inside the bubble have been dropped. (International fans were never invited.) Only a tiny number of hand-selected, highly monitored attendees will be able to watch events live, and they have been instructed not to cheer or shout.

“It’s a pity that I won’t be able to watch the Games this time,” said Chen Lin, a 38-year-old Beijinger who attended the 2008 Olympics. “Of course, we can still watch the Games … on TV and live streaming online, but it doesn’t provide as strong a sense of engagement as watching the Games on the spot.”

A commentator's screen at the Wukesong hockey arena; security cameras outside the main media centre.Carl Court and Michael Heiman/Getty Images

For those outside China, media coverage may also be affected by the pandemic. Multiple broadcasters, including the CBC and NBC, are anchoring events primarily from their respective countries, with just a few reporters on the ground inside the bubble, while some media are staying home entirely. ESPN announced this month that it “will not be sending any news personnel to the Winter Olympics.”

“With the pandemic continuing to be a global threat, and with the COVID-related on-site restrictions in place for the Olympics that would make coverage very challenging, we felt that keeping our people home was the best decision for us,” ESPN executive editor Norby Williamson said.

The tight restrictions on journalists inside the bubble, while vital to China’s pandemic strategy, could have costs when it comes to soft power, diluting the amount of coverage of the country itself. While there were reports on Tibet and human rights in 2008, the Summer Games ultimately served as a global ad for China, something that is unlikely to play out this time around. Broadcasters have faced calls to drop the Games entirely, and NBC Olympics chief Molly Solomon has promised the network will not ignore the “geopolitical context” in its coverage.

This may result in a more sports-focused Olympics than ever before – something viewers may appreciate. But the hosts are not shelling out billions of dollars just to showcase curling or luge. And when it comes to soft power, China is facing an uphill battle: polling shows unfavourable views of the country are at, or near, historic highs in most advanced economies, and particularly in those countries where the Winter Olympics is a key focus.

According to Pew Research, more than 70 per cent of respondents from Germany, Canada, the United States and the Netherlands – all winter sports powerhouses – said they had an unfavourable view of China. In Sweden the figure was 80 per cent. Even if the Olympics do move the needle somewhat (and research suggests any 2008 bump was short lived, in any case), it’s unlikely they’ll be winning many hearts and minds in the West.

Public perceptions of China, by nation

Per cent, Pew Research Center Spring 2021

Global Attitudes Survey

Unfavourable view

Favourable view

North America

U.S

76%

20%

Canada

73

23

Europe

Sweden

80

18

Neth.

72

24

Germany

71

21

Belgium

67

28

France

66

29

Britain

63

27

Italy

60

38

Spain

57

39

Greece

42

52

Median

66

42

Asia

Japan

88

10

Australia

78

21

S. Korea

77

22

Taiwan

69

27

N. Zealand

67

30

Singapore

34

64

Median

73

25

Overall

median

69

27

the globe and mail, Source: pew research center.

those who did not answer not shown. does not

add to 100 due to rounding.

Public perceptions of China, by nation

Per cent, Pew Research Center Spring 2021

Global Attitudes Survey

Unfavourable view

Favourable view

North America

U.S

76%

20%

Canada

73

23

Europe

Sweden

80

18

Neth.

72

24

Germany

71

21

Belgium

67

28

France

66

29

Britain

63

27

Italy

60

38

Spain

57

39

Greece

42

52

Median

66

42

Asia

Japan

88

10

Australia

78

21

S. Korea

77

22

Taiwan

69

27

N. Zealand

67

30

Singapore

34

64

Median

73

25

Overall

median

69

27

the globe and mail, Source: pew research center.

those who did not answer not shown. does not

add to 100 due to rounding.

Public perceptions of China, by nation

Per cent, Pew Research Center Spring 2021 Global Attitudes Survey

Unfavourable view

Favourable view

North America

U.S

76%

20%

Canada

73

23

Europe

Sweden

80

18

Netherlands

72

24

Germany

71

21

Belgium

67

28

France

66

29

Britain

63

27

Italy

60

38

Spain

57

39

Greece

42

52

Median

66

42

Asia

Japan

88

10

Australia

78

21

S. Korea

77

22

Taiwan

69

27

N. Zealand

67

30

Singapore

34

64

Median

73

25

Overall

median

69

27

the globe and mail, Source: pew research center. those who did not answer not shown.

does not add to 100 due to rounding.

The likelihood of viewers seeing any public dissent on display during the Games is next to zero, however –even athletes who might protest have been advised by activist groups not to risk it.

In developing nations, China is more popular, but winter sports generally aren’t. Ms. Brownell pointed out that most developing countries are in temperate and tropical climates, and “there’s a bit of a question as to whether that part of the world even watches the Winter Games.”

“The Winter Games will never match the Summer Games, because they involve half the number of athletes, half the number of countries,” said Dr. Dichter. “It just isn’t as big of a deal for much of the world.”

The government hopes the Olympics will kickstart a $200-billion winter sports industry, but it is starting nearly from scratch, with many people never having watched, let alone taken part in, most of the sports that will be on display next month.

“Winter sports are far away from our real life, to be honest,” said a Beijing resident named Zheng, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying by her full name because of the sensitivities of discussing the Olympics with foreign media. “My daughter is more excited – she’s been looking up rules of different ice sports and now is something of an expert.” She said that compared with the 2008 Games, which felt more tangible, “this Olympics is more like a symbol to us. A symbol of our country becoming greater and more competitive on the international stage.”

After the billions of dollars spent, the diplomatic fallout and the stress about spiking COVID-19 cases, the organizers of Beijing 2022 will be hoping against hope the rest of the world sees it the same way.

With reports from Alexandra Li and the Associated Press


What are people saying about the Olympics?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes on Parliament Hill in 2018.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Many partners around the world are extremely concerned by the repeated human-rights violations by the Chinese government. That’s why we … will not be sending any diplomatic representation to the Beijing Olympics.

–Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau


Based on ideological biases as well as lies and rumours, Canada and a handful of Western countries have been flagrantly engaged in political manoeuvring, with the attempt to disrupt the smooth progress of Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Their clumsy performance can hardly find any support and is doomed to fail.

–China’s embassy to Canada


The Biden administration will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human-rights abuses.

–White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki


I don’t think we should politicize these topics, especially if it’s to take steps that are insignificant and symbolic … You either have a complete boycott, and don’t send athletes, or you try to change things with useful actions.

–French President Emmanuel Macron

Chinese President Xi Jinping with IOC chief Thomas Bach.Zhang Ling/Xinhua via AP


We are fully confident and capable of presenting to the world a fantastic, extraordinary and excellent Winter Olympics.

–Chinese President Xi Jinping


The Games should not be used as a distraction from China’s appalling human-rights record. On the contrary, they should be an opportunity to press China to address these issues.

–Amnesty International


The IOC awarded the Games to China, a country recognized internationally for its human-rights violations. This unfairly makes athletes pawns in a geopolitical fight. The IOC is to blame for putting athletes in this position; no athlete can be faulted for their choice to attend or not attend the Games.

–Advocacy group Global Athlete


Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.

–Beijing Olympics official Yang Shu on potential athlete protests


The pure ice and snow sports cannot tolerate dirty political calculations. Anyone who attempts to disrupt and sabotage the unity either by making an issue of the Winter Games or by manipulating the athletes will be framed as a clown in history.

–Global Times, Chinese state-run newspaper

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