On opening day of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Grid had a Twitter Spaces conversation based on the premise that these games might produce more non-sports news than any Olympics in recent memory. One week in, there’s been even more news away from the slopes and rinks than we had imagined.
When “zero-covid” meets an Olympic village
In the run-up to the Games, China’s “zero-covid” strategy was hitting omicron-driven obstacles; throw into the mix thousands of visitors from around the world (to a country that has kept most foreign visitors out for the duration of the pandemic), and zero-covid seemed a long shot.
One week in, among the roughly 15,000 athletes, coaches, members of the media and other observers who have descended on Beijing, 490 have tested positive. There has been no reported spread outside the walled-off Olympic “bubble” areas, where every one of those 15,000 visitors eats and sleeps and is tested multiple times each day. Sleep pods are deep-cleaned, and bars and restaurants are staffed by robots and humans in full hazmat gear. Four hundred ninety cases is probably a good number from China’s perspective, but you can imagine what it means for the Olympians, their coaches and others in the bubble.
A positive test is of course an Olympic athlete’s worst nightmare — see U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou’s tearful farewell from the Games — but the bubble has brought other covid-related trauma.
Finland’s men’s ice hockey coach Jukka Jalonen charged China with not respecting human rights for keeping his star Marko Anttila in isolation for more than two weeks after a positive test — a ruling that meant Anttila was off the ice on opening weekend. Jalonen said the team doctor had said Anttila was no longer infectious, 18 days after his positive test: “We know that he’s fully healthy and ready to go, and that’s why we think that China, for some reason, won’t respect his human rights.”
Polish speed skater Natalia Maliszewska told of being released from quarantine the night before a qualifying race and then returned to isolation hours before the competition. Her latest test had come back positive. “I don’t believe in anything anymore,” she wrote on Twitter. “In no tests. No games. It’s a big joke for me.” Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans posted a tearful Instagram video Wednesday after a similar sequence of events: cleared to race and then sent to isolation just prior to the race.
It was hard to match the drama of Australia’s mixed doubles curling team — who planned a flight home after learning that team member Tahli Gill was covid-positive. They were en route to the airport when the decision was reversed; they took a taxi back to the Ice Cube just in time for their match with Switzerland. (They won.)
Not since the full-scale Olympic boycotts by the U.S. in 1980 (of the Moscow Games) and the Soviets (of the Los Angeles Games) in 1984 have politics and human rights been so front and center under the Olympic rings. Chinese officials made abundantly clear before these games: Any athlete or coach who spoke critically of the Chinese government could expect a quick ticket home.
The Chinese were given something of a lift from the International Olympic Committee, whose director defended a long-standing IOC mandate against political statements during the Olympics. The regulation, IOC Rule 50, dates to the mid-1970s and prohibits any “kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” The IOC relaxed the measure before last year’s Tokyo Games, allowing athletes to express themselves politically before competitions began. As the Beijing Games opened, IOC Director Thomas Bach was asked about a further easing, given interest in issues ranging from China’s treatment of its Uyghur population to its encroachment in Hong Kong.
“The rule has not changed and the attitude of the IOC has not changed,” Bach replied. Yang Shu spoke for the Chinese organizing committee: Any speech “against Chinese laws and regulations” would be “subjected to certain punishment.”
On Friday, one athlete challenged the rules. Ukrainian skeleton racer Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a sign for cameras: “No War in Ukraine” after he finished a run.
Technically, Heraskevych’s act could be construed as a violation of both the IOC and Chinese rules; his “no war” message is clearly aimed at Russia, which has ringed Ukraine’s borders with more than 100,000 troops.
“I decided, before the Olympics, that I would show my position to the world,” Heraskevych said. “I hope the Olympics will [support] me in this situation. Nobody wants war.”
His moment seems an isolated case. There may have been complaints about the seemingly arbitrary nature of the covid protocols and the dreary reality of isolation, but no one has been seen or heard complaining about, say, forced labor in Xinjiang. And in what was either a brazen finger in the eye of the human rights community or a brilliant public relations exercise, the Beijing 2022 organizers chose Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uyghur Olympian, as one of the two final bearers of the Olympic torch. As told by Chinese state media, the moment “showed the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang”; Rahima Mahmut, the U.K. director for the World Uyghur Congress, told the New York Times she had a different view: “It is disgusting, absolutely disgusting.”
Meanwhile, a handful of countries ended up following the U.S. in its diplomatic boycott — but no athletes or corporate sponsors have joined in.
Where is Peng Shuai?
The IOC president was also a central figure in this week’s latest chapter in the saga of China’s former Olympian tennis star Peng Shuai.
As Grid’s Lili Pike reported on the eve of the Games, China has on the one hand successfully scrubbed all public references to Peng and her November accusations of sexual assault against a former Chinese vice premier; on the other, beyond China’s borders, the official Chinese approach appears to have backfired. Some advocates and professional athletes had urged Olympians to join the calls for answers about Peng’s initial statements; it hasn’t happened.
As the Games got underway, Bach hosted a dinner for Peng at the Olympic Club in Beijing, and she was seen at various Olympic venues. Not seen anywhere: T-shirts or signs emblazoned with #WhereIsPengShuai? — the hashtag and question that have become a global indicator of concern for her well-being. Once again, the IOC issued a statement with an all-is-normal tone (among other things, we learned that Peng had attended a China versus Norway curling match), but which said nothing about the accusations nor the prospects of an investigation into Peng’s claims.
Did the IOC believe Peng’s initial statements? IOC officials declined to say. Did they believe she was speaking freely, or under pressure from the Chinese government? “I don’t think it’s up to us to be able to judge, just as it’s not for you to judge, either, in one way or another,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Peng gave an interview to the French sports paper L’Equipe and said that the meaning of her initial post — in which she had said, among other things, that the vice premier had forced her to have sex, and “I was very scared that afternoon” — had been misconstrued.
L’Equipe said the interview had been arranged by China’s Olympic committee.
Geopolitics: An “alliance of autocracies”
Before the Games, a Grid/Morning Consult poll found that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt politics and sport should not mix. But mix they do, and long after the last 2022 Beijing medals are won, the impact of a very different Beijing event will linger.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met on the day of the Beijing opening ceremonies. Xi hadn’t met any head of state in person since the pandemic began, and he broke that drought in dramatic fashion.
The Russia-China relationship has been rocky for decades. Putin came to these Olympics looking to shore up the partnership, and with an urgent list of requests involving the Ukraine standoff. The Russian leader knows that severe Western sanctions are almost certainly in store if he moves his troops into Ukraine.
On opening day in Beijing, Putin could claim several victories: $117.5 billion in new energy deals with China, including a 30-year contract between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation to supply 10 billion cubic meters of gas each year, via a new pipeline from Russia’s Far East to northeast China. China made clear that it agreed with Russia’s current demands from NATO involving European security.
Beyond the specifics, the two leaders were all smiles, and their joint statement (all 5,300 words) gushed with mutual praise, implicit disdain for the U.S. and talk of a new and long-lasting partnership. There was a “redistribution of power in the world,” the statement said; it was the beginning, the New York Times’ Beijing Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers put it, of an “alliance of autocracies.”
One might say, gold for Putin, silver for China — with the U.S. and its European allies left off this particular medal stand. A more sophisticated take from former Australian prime minister and president of the Asia Society, Kevin Rudd: “This is a big shift in the Chinese foreign policy mainstream. The world should get ready for a further significant deepening of the China-Russia security and economic relationship.”
That Grid/Morning Consult poll of Americans’ attitudes toward the Olympics included this question: “How much of the February 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics do you intend to watch, if any?” Respondents were evenly split, 50-50. Well, we’re only one week in, but thus far the results haven’t been encouraging.
Through Feb. 8, an average of 12.3 million viewers per day had watched on NBCUniversal and streaming channels. At that stage of the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, the figure was roughly 23 million, according to an NBC spokesman.
Why the drop-off? Many reasons have been floated — the time difference (Beijing is 13 hours ahead of New York), though that would have applied to the 2018 games as well; the absence of cheering crowds; all those political and human rights issues; or, as the “Sports Reporters” podcast hosts Mike Lupica and Mitch Albom suggested, too many new events that are so poorly understood. (“I mean, what’s the ‘monobob’?” Lupica asked.)
Weirdest Olympic backdrop?
Lastly — because many have asked — what is that?
“That” is Beijing’s Big Air Shougang Olympic venue, where free ski competitors fly off the 60-meter-high (196-foot) ramp framed by what look like the cooling towers of a nuclear plant. In fact, it’s the site of a very old steel mill — founded in 1919 and shuttered more than 15 years ago, part of efforts to clear the air in the capital ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
If you thought it was a nuclear plant, you weren’t alone.
From Twitter: “The Big Air stadium at the Olympics seems to be right next to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant,” said @jlove1982. @LindsayMpls wrote: “Feels pretty dystopian to have some kind of nuclear facility as the backdrop for this Big Air skiing event.”