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john powers | on the olympics

The Winter Olympics are 100 days away — here’s where things stand in Beijing

The Olympic Tower in Beijing.
The Olympic Tower in Beijing.Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

The COVID playbook for the upcoming XXIV Winter Olympics was released Monday, and Beijing’s version makes Tokyo’s restrictions from last summer look like an open door.

All 2,900 athletes must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days before leaving for China or endure a “hard quarantine” for three weeks once they arrive. They’ll be tested daily with throat swabs. And they’ll function in a “closed loop” bubble throughout, being shuttled between the Olympic village and their competition sites.

No walking on the Great Wall. No wandering around the Forbidden City. No shopping at Silk Street.

But the Games will go on, pandemic and politics aside. There never was any doubt about that, because the only alternative to Beijing would have been Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, which was the runner-up in a two-horse race in the 2015 vote. Almaty has neither the infrastructure nor the money to stage a modern Olympics.

Thus will Beijing be the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. With the opening ceremonies in the Bird’s Nest stadium exactly 100 days away as of Wednesday, all of the facilities have been completed and test-driven.

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Just as they were for the Summer Games in 2008, the venues are magnificent. A number of them are the same; they’ve just been repurposed.

The Water Cube where Michael Phelps won his record eight gold medals will be used for curling. The National Indoor Stadium where Nastia Liukin earned her all-around gold medal will be used for hockey. So will the Wukesong Arena where the Redeem Team reclaimed the men’s basketball title. And the Capital Indoor Stadium, used for volleyball, will stage figure skating and short-track speedskating.

A test run for the curling competition was held at the Water Cube in the spring.
A test run for the curling competition was held at the Water Cube in the spring.Andy Wong/Associated Press

The government created most of the snow venues from scratch and built a bullet train to get there from the city. Even so, the budget is only a tenth of the $43 billion that Sochi spent to turn a summer getaway into a winter resort in 2014.

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So everything is in place for an exceptionally successful Games. There will even be spectators, which there weren’t in Tokyo. But the sense of celebration and communion that usually surrounds this quadrennial global sleigh ride will be missing.

As constrained as the summer athletes were in Tokyo with the arrive-compete-leave policy that left them little time to roam the city, their winter counterparts will be in a social straitjacket in Beijing. Even getting there will be a five-ringed headache. Half of the 240-member US squad will be arriving in Beijing from outside the States, most of them from Europe. So the USOPC may have to coordinate the required COVID testing in multiple cities and charter several direct planes to Beijing.

Once at the Games, the athletes won’t see family and friends in the stands, since all foreign spectators have been banned. That also was true in Tokyo, where there were no spectators at all except for athletes, volunteers, and media representatives.

The difference is that not only will the stands be full in Beijing, they’ll be filled exclusively with Chinese citizens. It’s hard to imagine a more imposing home-field advantage for any sporting event. Ironically, because of a pandemic that began in China and spread across the planet, the visitors are taking the hit.

The Tokyo Olympics seem so recent, but its only 100 days until Beijing.
The Tokyo Olympics seem so recent, but its only 100 days until Beijing.LEO RAMIREZ/AFP via Getty Images

At least the winter athletes didn’t have to put their lives on hold for an extra year, as their summer equivalents did. They had reasonably complete seasons in 2020 and competed in their customary world championships. Their fall campaigns are starting on schedule, with the Alpine skiers and short-track speedskaters already under way and the rest of the World Cup calendars beginning soon.

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But the athletes aren’t going to have the full Olympic experience that they’ve earned and are entitled to. And they’re still being used as pawns in the protest against China’s egregious human rights record, as calls for a Games boycott continue. That was the case in 1980 when Jimmy Carter pushed for the US withdrawal from the Moscow Olympics. The athletes paid the price, the Games still went on, and the Red Army remained in Afghanistan for another decade.

“For a greater change to occur, there must be power that is beyond the Olympics,” said US figure skater Nathan Chen, whose parents are Chinese immigrants. “It has to be change at a remarkable scale. However, the fact that people are talking about this issue and the Olympics are bringing it to light is a step in the right direction.”

As it was with Tokyo last summer, the important thing is that the Beijing Games are being held as scheduled, despite all the reservations and restraints. For a world yearning for the return of something universal and uplifting at a time of upheaval, that is a welcome consolation.