Beijing fires the starting gun on the Winter Olympics today, making the Chinese capital the first city to host both the summer and winter games.
They begin under a cloud, literally in the case of the 250 seeding rockets dispatched into the sky in the lead-up to provoke snow around a snowless city. But few major world leaders will attend the opening ceremony, a stain on the record of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was hoping to use the events as rousing proof of China's rising power.
The winter games were supposed to be a perfect sporting whitewashing event, demonstrating China's technical prowess in venue construction and technological expertise in the way the games are run. Queue lots of footage of robots delivering lunch to your table.
Ignore the pesky details about China. The events were supposed to reinforce Xi's rule, yet another demonstration of China's superpower status. However, diplomatic boycotts by the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, India, Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania have dulled the luster of Olympic gold.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of 32 mainly Middle Eastern or central Asian heads of state to make the trip to Beijing, may have rebuked those nations for trying to "politicize sports issues." But something like the Olympics is inherently political. They sing national anthems when you win, not Happy Birthday. The ice hockey competition in particular has often been cast as a West vs. East clash.
China's slogan for these games is "Together for a Shared Future." It captures much the same sentiment as the "One World, One Dream" strapline for the 2008 Beijing summer games. Together never looked so lonely.
Xi will seek reelection in November to secure an unprecedented third term. He has successfully pushed through a reform to the rules that removes term limits, and essentially allows the "Emperor for Life" to rule as long as he wants. But he must still seek enough support from within the Chinese Communist Party that he can see off any would-be challengers with ambitions on his throne. For now, there are none.
Rather than foreign leaders, Xi extended instead a warm welcome to the International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach, in a video address. Bach has been in the middle of the furor surrounding the sexual-abuse allegations made by professional tennis player Peng Shuai, who said in a November 2 social-media post that former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had forced her into sex.
No doubt with one eye on Beijing, Bach conducted two carefully managed video chats with Peng in the days after she made her claims, after which the IOC said she was "safe and well." Bach says he will meet with Peng during the Olympics. Peng remains largely out of sight and has yet to leave China or speak in person to international media, the assumption being that her appearances so far have occurred with Communist Party handlers waiting in the wings. She said in an interview with a Chinese-language newspaper ultimately controlled by the Singapore government that there has been "misunderstanding" about her social media post, without clarifying what she meant.
China's human-rights record and abuse of power in its westernmost Xinjiang region and in Hong Kong, and its insistence it will eventually take over Taiwan, are also key concerns. Activists have cautioned athletes not to demonstrate or make political protests until after they get back home. Chinese official Yang Shu says in a deliberately vague way that any "behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit" and "especially against the Chinese law and regulations" will be subject to "certain punishment."
Australian sports minister Richard Colbeck hit back that the IOC has said in the past that athletes have the right to political opinions. While they're not meant to deal in symbolism on the podium, athletes should be free to say what they want in interviews and on social media, Colbeck insists.
No doubt, the games will be occurring inside a carefully managed biome. Organizers are worried about the dozens of Covid-19 cases already detected inside the Olympic "bubble," but the strict controls surrounding the events also suit the Communist Party in terms of stamping out dissent.
China long ago ruled out having overseas spectators at the events. It hopes to have some kind of crowd at most venues, but even within China the tickets have not been sold to the general public. It's unclear who the faces in the stands will be, but it's sure to be a carefully groomed guest list of Communist officials, members of the disciplined services and other "targeted" groups of people. The summer Olympics last year in Tokyo had no spectators at most events.
The Beijing Winter Olympics are the first to use 100% artificial snow. But the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea, were already firing 90% on snow guns, while the Sochi Olympics in Russia in 2014 used 80% fake snow. The alpine ski center in Beijing began producing snow in mid-November, compensating for an incredibly dry winter environment that sees, on average, only 7.9 millimeters of precipitation.
Olympic sponsors may spend as much as US$2 billion in supporting the events. But most companies have stayed very quiet about their participation when queried about it, and have not run flashy international campaigns. The IOC calls its highest level of sponsorship the TOP program, for The Olympic Partners.
There's a list of 13 TOP companies: Airbnb (ABNB) , Alibaba Group Holdings (BABA) , Allianz (ALIZY), Atos (AEXAY), Bridgestone (BRDCY), Coca-Cola (KO) , Intel (INTC) , Omega (part of the Swatch Group (SWGAY)), Panasonic (PCRFY), Procter & Gamble (PG) , Samsung (L:SMSN), Toyota (TM) and Visa (V) . The five U.S. companies have already been queried pointedly before Congress about their participation, dodging political questions.
Sponsors had opted to take a back seat at the summer Tokyo games, largely due to the poor approval ratings from polls of the Japanese public. Subsequent polls showed most people in Japan considered the games a success once they closed.
Olympic sponsors may get the greatest exposure to the Chinese public rather than overseas viewers. The timing is tough for viewers in the West, although here in Hong Kong I caught some of the early excitement in the curling. Sweden vs. the United States were squaring off in mixed doubles, one of nine mixed events, first held in Korea in 2018. The American pair won 8-7 in extra ends.
Will these be remembered as the "Genocide Games," as activists have dubbed them, referencing China's internment camps for ethnic minorities, in particular its Uighur and Kazakh populations? Will they be remembered as the swan song of snowboarding superstar Shaun White, now in his fifth Olympics? Or will they be remembered for the emergence of new stars, record setters and trend setters both?
I think it'll be a little bit of "all of the above." Let the Games begin!