China’s challenge: Can sports overcome the controversy of Winter Olympics?

Sealed off from its host city by a labyrinth of high fences, thermal gates and facial-recognition cameras, this is an Olympics like no other.

Politics, protests and Covid protocols have become an unavoidable part of the build-up to these Games, and if anything, events taking place outside the sporting arena during the next two weeks will receive as much attention as actions on the ice and snow.

How China responds will be a major test for the country’s leader Xi Jinping, who is gearing up for an unprecedented third term in power this fall.

“The world is turning its eyes to China, and China is ready,” Xi said Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony.

For China’s ruling Communist Party, the Games will offer a moment of national triumph, as Beijing becomes the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It is also the first major global event inside of China since the country shut its borders two years ago in the wake of the initial coronavirus outbreak.

But among the Chinese public, enthusiasm for the Winter Games pales in comparison with 2008, when residents gathered in their thousands across Beijing to watch the Summer Olympics opening ceremony on large public screens, eager to be a part of history. This year, few viewing parties are taking place in a capital subdued by heavy-handed snap lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions.

“I think the Games are going to be declared a great success by the Communist Party — whether it’s gonna be perceived as such by other nations is another issue,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The National Stadium is lit up in Beijing on February 2, two days before it hosts the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

Defending the bubble

In a bid to keep the Games Covid-free — and to prevent the virus from spreading into the wider population — Chinese authorities have constructed a vast network of bubbles, known officially as the “closed loop,” that separates the Games from the host city.

Already, more than 300 coronavirus cases — about a third of them linked to athletes and team officials — have been detected in Beijing’s recent Olympic arrivals, including American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans. Chinese organizers do not appear concerned, saying the situation was within their “expected controllable range.”

Inside the bubble, Covid protocol dominates every aspect of life, from daily testing to traveling between venues.

The sweeping control requires massive organizational efforts and manpower, but it is also aided by technology — which the organizers have made a point of showing off.

A worker waits for a robot processing an order at the dining hall of the Main Press Center of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
At the main media center in Beijing, workers in masks, goggles and face shields work alongside robots that make burgers, mix cocktails, sweep the floor and spray clouds of disinfectant; smart surveillance cameras monitor people’s epidemic prevention data as soon as they enter the venue, triggering alarms and tracing all their close contacts once any anomaly is flagged.

To those new to China’s “zero-Covid” approach, the meticulous control is both confusingly convoluted and alarmingly restrictive. Often, Covid prevention makes simple tasks unnecessarily difficult. Walking is rarely an option to get around the “closed loop,” even if the destination is just a few blocks away. Instead, participants must take dedicated vehicles.

On “closed loop” buses, drivers are sealed-off behind a thick transparent screen intended to protect against the spread of the virus — unfortunately, it’s also mostly soundproof. Passengers unsure about where to disembark are forced to shout through the screen, or rely on hand gestures.

“In terms of public health measures, this is the most ambitious, most stringent Olympics in history,” said Yanzhong Huang, a public health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Throughout the pandemic, the Communist Party has staked its political legitimacy on its ability to contain the virus better than other countries, specifically Western democracies, and as such, is unwilling to take any chances.

But Chinese authorities have a fine balance to tread. While overtly stringent measures risk causing unnecessary disruption to the Games, the last thing Beijing wants to see is an outbreak running rampant inside the bubble — or worse, spilling into the capital and beyond.

Officials decked in personal protective equipment wait to validate Olympic accreditation for people arriving at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 24.

Political controversy

The Winter Games’ official motto — featured ubiquitously on billboards and banners across the city — is “Together for a Shared Future.” But in the lead-up to it, the event has only served to spotlight the growing chasm between China and the West.

The controversy has been building for months. Rights groups called for a boycott of the Games in protest of China’s human rights record, from its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang — which Washington has labeled a genocide — and its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s silencing of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian, after she accused a former top party leader of sexual assault has further amplified such calls.

In December,…

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