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Beijing Winter Olympics: Sport, politics, and Covid come together,

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Hosting the Winter Olympics in a pandemic would have been a test for the Chinese government. Its ever-growing political control and virus containment capabilities were put at risk by its desire to achieve international status and prestige.

The 2022 Winter Games will open Friday. They are held in a period of intense west criticism of China for human rights abuses. These include the mass persecutions of Uyghurs and Tibetans in western Xinjiang – deemed genocide by the United States – and the crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

China denies human rights violations, but activists call the Beijing gathering the “Genocide Games.” Western powers from the US and the UK have declared a boycott of the opening ceremony. World Uyghur Congress, an exiled campaign group, said: “No one should wish another Olympics like these.”

Many countries don’t trust the host country, so many have instructed their athletes to use burner phones. Cyber security experts warned that a health app for Olympians could be used to spy on them and steal personal information.

China men’s ice hockey team at a training session on Friday. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images

Environmentalists have been criticized for their warnings for years about the adverse effects of hosting the Games. They need water to make snow and ice, which is difficult to find in areas of extreme water scarcity.

Beijing managed to weather the scandal when it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Susan Brownell, a University of Missouri-St Louis expert on Chinese sports, was there for the Games.

High-profile protests then plagued the global torch relay. Leaders were pressured to miss the opening ceremony. Environmentalists warned of the severe pollution that engulfed Beijing. Chinese oppression in Tibet was on the news agenda.

Mascots for the Winter Olympics. Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Brownell stated that while the investigative and political journalists are the main news, once the Games begin, it will be the sports journalists. The athletes became the main focus once the competition started. Beijing is confident that this will be the case again in 2012.

Control and covid

Covid has conveniently avoided Beijing worrying about protests from stands. This would have been the most likely venue for political activism in a country that bans citizens’ demonstrations.

The only foreigners allowed to fly to Beijing are competitors and support staff.

It employs Chinese workers, who are forbidden from returning to their homes for a prolonged quarantine period.

People queuing for a Covid test in Beijing last week. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Authorities are so determined to complete separation that they have warned Beijing residents not to help Olympians in the event of a loop vehicle colliding.

Victor Cha, the Center for Strategic and International Studies Washington DC, sees these rules as a metaphor for China’s communist leadership wanting the Games to be played out in an open system entirely under their control.

“Covid has given them an excuse to lock everything down. He said they want complete control over the Olympic picture and that it helps.

Official international protest will take the form of a diplomatic boycott from western governments, including the US and UK. However, their absence is unlikely to be a significant headache in Beijing or to feature prominently during news coverage at the Games.

They ignore the diplomatic boycotts. This feeds the domestic narrative of the west trying to take China’s moment in the sun. They can also say that leaders aren’t coming because of Covid.

Athlete pressure

The athletes are now the only ones who can make a statement due to the international shutdown of the Games.

It is impossible to separate politics and business from sports. This is more than just a sporting event. It’s also a political occasion,” stated Mark Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Struggle to Be the Best.

Peng Shuai, a tennis star and one of China’s most well-known Olympians, has brought the human cost of China’s political control.

She vanished last year after she accused a former senior Communist Party official of forcing her into a relationship. Her allegations were removed from the internet.

Chinese president Xi Jinping in Shanxi province last week. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

After international outrage, she made several stage-managed public appearances in China, including with Olympic officials. These events did little to alleviate concerns about her acting with free will.

This month, protesters at the Australian Open, wearing T-shirts that said “Where is Peng Shuai?”, highlighted her treatment. The organizers banned them, but they later reversed their decision.

Concerned by the growing support for Peng’s cause, China took the unusual step to go beyond the International Olympic Committee bans against athletes taking political positions.

Analysts believe that this rhetoric is meant to deter athletes from breaking Chinese laws. A Beijing-sponsored event is likely to be remembered for its sporting and logistical success by an athlete being arrested over a political protest.

Global Athlete’s Rob Koehler, an advocacy group for athletes, stated that they had advised competitors not to criticize China until they return home from competing. He said, “That is probably the most outrageous thing that we have ever had to say given the amount of effort we made to get them the right to basic freedoms of expression.”

Omicron disruption

Even if China can avoid an inflammatory protest or an inflammatory response at the Games, the virus, which might have once looked like a gift from a government bent to control, has become a more significant threat to a successful Olympics. The highly contagious Omicron virus circulates widely.

It could lead to the demise of the events if it knocks out prominent athletes or reduces the number competing.

Beijing said on Saturday that the number of cases in Beijing’s Olympic village had risen from two to 19 since before the Games began. For the first time, issues involving athletes and team officials outnumbered those involving media and other stakeholders. Qualifying competitions have been disrupted after some athletes were positive. Brownell stated that some athletes contracted Covid while competing in US figure skating championships. This was despite being extremely cautious.

“They were masking and observing social distancing. The pairs team had no lessons with their coach in the rink and didn’t know how to get it. Brownell stated that it caused quite a panic at championships.

Public health experts believe China’s successes in controlling the earlier Covid variants have made it more vulnerable. Omicron is not being treated by the country’s vaccines, which are still ineffective. There is also very little natural immunity because only a few cases have been reported in a nation of over 1.4 billion people.

The potential for a Covid epidemic is terrifying because of the population’s vulnerability and uneven distribution of healthcare systems. In the early days of the pandemic, Wuhan was devastated. The fear that this could happen to other parts of China has led to intense testing and quarantine.

China Beyond

These factors have influenced how the rest of the world or audiences in markets like the US will experience the Games. NBC, the broadcaster, is keeping its commentators home and covering Beijing from thousands of miles away.

Many millions of viewers wanted to see the Games in Japan last year but were restricted from media coverage.

“I felt that the coverage of the Tokyo Games had suffered,” said Brownell. Brownell stated that it was clear that they didn’t spend the same amount on coverage, and the range wasn’t as appealing or glossy.

“Now that commentators are not in Beijing, it’s going be even more significant. The pandemic restrictions may impact how viewers see the Olympics via social media and TV.

It may also mean less promotion. Sponsors who have paid considerable sums to be associated with the Games have not been as proud of their connections in the west, perhaps because of how the Olympics are controversial.

China has imposed severe penalties on managers, sports personalities, and companies who have been openly critical of its politics for years.

After being allowed to keep his job, a tweet Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, sent in support of pro-democracy protests at Hong Kong in 2019 was estimated to have cost hundreds of millions to the National Basketball Association.

Sponsors in the west are cautious about being accused of pandering to China. The Wall Street Journal reported that there was no pre-Games campaign to generate excitement in the US from Visa, Coca-Cola, or Procter & Gamble because they are between Beijing and Washington.

One game, two worlds

However, the Beijing Winter Games framing is very different from China’s. It is focused on instilling national pride and using the Games to increase participation and expand the domestic snow sports industry.

Shushu Chen, a University of Birmingham lecturer in sports policy management, stated that participation by Chinese citizens in sports has increased since the 2008 Games. He has been following the effects of the Summer Games in Beijing, London, and has seen an increase in Chinese participation.

Chen observed that Beijing residents were more optimistic about the Olympic Games’ inspirational effects than Londoners. This could be due to sociocultural contextual differences.

Dreyer, a Beijing resident since 2007, noticed that China’s enthusiasm for winter sports started in 2015 when it was awarded the hosting rights. While China will not be the top medalist this year, it is likely to do better. It will also have more athletes participating in the Winter Games.

The Games have already been hailed in China to victory for Beijing’s ability to resist the virus and against Western criticism. These Games might be remembered in a different way internationally.

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