The alternative was Almaty, the former Kazakhstan capital that offered abundant snow and a compact venue layout. But when the International Olympic Committee met seven years ago to pick the site for the 2022 Winter Games its members decided that Beijing was the more practical option. “It is really a safe choice,” IOC president Thomas Bach said then. “We know China will deliver on its promises.”
When Almaty recently was wracked by rioting that left more than 100 people dead and the city under a state of emergency, the IOC’s selection of Beijing appeared prudent. Yet the XXIVth Winter Games, which will open on Feb. 4, may be the least safe and most controversial in history.
While president Xi Jinping promised “fantastic, extraordinary, and excellent Games,” the host country has been widely condemned for its deplorable human rights record and is struggling to deal with a COVID-19 resurgence that has prompted the lockdown of multiple cities.
The pandemic also was a challenge for last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, which were held without spectators as athletes performed under an “arrive-compete-leave” policy. But with the contagious Omicron variant raging across the planet, the Chinese organizers will put nearly 3,000 competitors from more than 90 countries into a “closed loop” that essentially will limit them to the Olympic village and their venues and forbid them from venturing into the city and mingling with the public.
“They have set up an extremely sophisticated sanitary bubble that keeps all the participants inside it,” said Christophe Dubi, the Games’ executive director. “Athletes will have virtually no contact with the outside world.”
The Games will go on as scheduled despite the Omicron surge, the IOC insists. While the United States and other countries are not sending their usual diplomatic delegations as a show of disapproval of China’s repressive regime, calls from human rights activists for a boycott like those that depleted the 1976, 1980, and 1984 Summer Olympics have gone nowhere.
“Human rights violations are abysmal . . . it tears the fabric of humanity,” said US ice dancer Evan Bates, who’ll be skating in his fourth Games. “But I think to boycott the Games would be to not take the opportunity to shed light on this topic.”
China’s harsh treatment of Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group in northwest China, and other minorities violates the Olympic Charter, which stresses “the enjoyment of rights and freedoms . . . without discrimination of any kind.” Yet host countries that violate that principle, most recently Russia, which hosted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, still have been allowed to stage Olympics.
Bach, who declared in his New Year’s address that the Games “must be beyond all political disputes,” has opted merely for what he calls “quiet diplomacy” with the Chinese government, most notably involving the disappearance of Peng Shuai, a former Olympic tennis player who has not been seen in public since accusing a former vice premier of sexual assault.
If the IOC had had its preference, the 2022 Games would have gone to Oslo — the 1952 host that was the bidding favorite. But cost concerns in the wake of the stupendously expensive 2014 event in Sochi and an aversion to the IOC’s “diva-like demands for luxury treatment” of its members induced the Norwegian capital to withdraw from the race.
While Almaty was an appealing contender, Kazakhstan’s oil-dependent economy and its septuagenarian strongman president made it a risky bet. So by a 44-40 margin the IOC chose certainty and made Beijing the only city ever to host both the Summer and Winter Games.
As promised, Beijing has created an exceptional network of venues, both repurposed and new. The 2008 gymnastics facility will be used for hockey, as will the Wukesong Indoor Stadium that hosted basketball. The Capital Indoor Stadium, where volleyball was played, will stage figure skating and short-track speedskating, while the Water Cube, where Michael Phelps splashed to a record eight gold medals, has been turned into a curling arena.
Yet Beijing’s transformation into a winter wonderland occasioned uneasiness about its environmental impact, notably involving the Alpine skiing venue in Yanqing, which is near a nature reserve and likely will require artificial snow to be trucked in from elsewhere.
Beijing may not be Oslo, but the city has delivered the enviable collection of facilities that the IOC had anticipated for less than a tenth of the amount the Russians spent to turn a Black Sea summer destination into a winter resort eight years ago.
“The field of play and the venues are outstanding,” said Pierre Ducrey, the IOC’s Games operations director. “So we’re going to have fantastic sport here in Beijing.”
The Chinese also built a new airport, expanded the city’s subway system, and constructed a high-speed railway from Beijing to the Zhangjiakou ski resort 120 miles away that will stage most of the snow events.
The assumption, of course, was that the rest of the world would turn up to see Beijing do its best impersonation of St. Moritz. But the organizers announced months ago that foreign spectators would be banned just as they were in Tokyo, although invited groups of domestic fans will be allowed to attend.
The government’s “Zero COVID” policy, which calls for aggressive suppression and containment of the virus, has been ineffective. Xi’an, Yuzhou, and Anyang, major cities hundreds of miles from Beijing, essentially have been shuttered because of a breakout of cases. But the organizers are obsessed with eliminating any risk from Olympians who might bring the virus from overseas.
Unvaccinated athletes will be kept in quarantine for 21 days, essentially ruling them out of the Games. That was a major reason why the National Hockey League decided against sending its pros, who were worried about testing positive during the tournament and being put into isolation for at least three weeks and being docked by their clubs for missing games.
Olympians have to produce two negative COVID tests within 96 hours of departing for Beijing, take another upon arrival, and submit to daily testing throughout their stay. Those who’ve tested positive within a month of the Games, such as US skier Mikaela Shiffrin, figure skater Alysa Liu, and snowboarder Shaun White, will need an “eligibility assessment’' before being allowed to enter China.
Amid all these worries and strictures there will be Olympics but not the impeccably orchestrated, extraordinary ones like those that Beijing carried off in 2008 and that set the five-ringed standard going forward. The torch relay, which in Russia lasted for four months, covered 65,000 kilometers, and visited nearly 3,000 towns and villages, has been condensed to three days and confined to the competition clusters in Zhangjiakou, Yanqing, and Beijing. The Opening Ceremony, which director Zhang Yimou says will be “ethereal and romantic,” will last for less than 100 minutes and will involve only 3,000 performers, a fifth of the cast that put on the show at the Summer Games.
These Olympics will have a familiar competitive look with athletes vying for medals in 109 events across 15 sports disciplines ranging from skeleton to snowboarding. But they won’t be the Games that anyone would have imagined seven years ago.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.