President Biden is considering a ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the Beijing Olympics. That’s not the only hurdle facing the games

When China hosted its first Olympics in 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush was among more than 80 heads of state in attendance in Beijing. Fourteen years later, the 2022 Winter Games are set to open in the same city but a different world, one wracked by a pandemic and one where a more-powerful China finds itself increasingly at odds with the U.S. and other democracies. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for the games to be “simple, safe and splendid,” a challenge as COVID-19 cases mount globally along with international criticism of China’s record on human rights and other issues. U.S. President Joe Biden is considering a diplomatic boycott.

1. When are the games and where?

The games will run from Feb. 4-20, with the opening ceremony scheduled Feb. 4 at Beijing’s National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest. Beijing — the first city to host both a summer and winter games — will reuse some of the 2008 venues for ice events. The suburb of Yanqing, home to part of the Great Wall, and the city of Zhangjiakou in neighboring Hebei province, will host events such as alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross country and ski jumping. Built for the games, a new high-speed rail line cuts travel time between the ski areas and Beijing to about 45 minutes. The Winter Paralympics will be held March 4-13.

2. What about Covid?

China has relentlessly pursued a Covid-zero strategy, requiring long quarantines for international arrivals and clamping down fiercely on any local flare-ups. Such measures will carry over to the games. Athletes and other participants who haven’t been vaccinated for at least 14 days will have to quarantine for 21 days upon arrival, according to the early Playbook. Olympic and Paralympic games participants who are vaccinated can skip quarantine and proceed directly to the “closed-loop management system,” which will be isolated from the rest of Beijing. Everyone will be subject to daily testing.

3. How did the summer games manage?

Tokyo, which was under a state of emergency during the summer games, also created an Olympic bubble, restricting access to the athlete village and venues. Organizers required a negative Covid test prior to arrival in Japan. Vaccinated or not, all participants were subjected to a three-day quarantine after they landed. They also were required to get tested daily. Organizers said there were 863 cases connected to the summer and Paralympic games; about 30% were people from abroad. Only 41 were athletes, who weren’t required to be vaccinated.

4. Will there be spectators?

Yes, but. The IOC said in September that tickets will be sold only to spectators residing in mainland China who “meet the requirements of the Covid-19 countermeasures.” Details were still being worked out. The Summer Olympics barred all fans from most venues as a Covid control measure. NBCUniversal, which broadcasts the Olympics in the U.S., reported Tokyo 2020 attracted the lowest viewership since it first aired the games in 1988. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Shell cited the lack of spectators as one of several factors affecting interest.

5. Will there be boycotts?

Biden said in November that the U.S. government was considering a diplomatic boycott, which could bar government officials from attending but not athletes. Human rights groups have long called for a full-blown boycott as a protest against China’s alleged mistreatment of ethnic Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minority groups, its national security crackdown on Hong Kong and other issues. Some members of the U.S. Congress have also urged pulling out, a sign of growing bipartisan anger. U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said he’s unlikely to attend but didn’t support withdrawing athletes. International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates told Australian television in October that the organization won’t pressure China on human rights because that’s not in its remit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he’s planning to attend

6. Are sponsors being pressured?

It’s a tightrope. Olympic sponsors are eager to promote themselves in China, a market of 1.4 billion people. But strained geopolitical relations make it hard to court a nationalist Chinese market and the rest of the world. Chinese consumers have become more wary of foreign brands, and the price is high for companies seen as offending China’s national pride. (China pulled Boston Celtics basketball games from broadcast in October following player Enes Kanter’s pro-Tibet statements.) There’s pressure from the U.S. too:

  • At a hearing in July, members of a U.S. congressional panel urged corporations including Coca-Cola Co. and Visa Inc. to pull their sponsorship unless the event is moved out of China. Company representatives said they were still assessing how to approach the games, and noted that their advertising would focus on the athletes, not the location.
  • Two U.S. lawmakers have proposed a bill that would ban companies that sponsor or do business with the Beijing Olympics from selling products or services to the U.S. government or in federal buildings or installations, including military bases.

7. Will there be protests like in Tokyo?

The 2020 games were the first held under newly relaxed rules that allow participants to engage in demonstrations at select times and sites as long as those actions do not constitute or signal “discrimination, hatred, hostility or the potential for violence.” Athletes exercised their new freedom. Soccer players from Great Britain, Japan, Chile, the U.S. and Sweden knelt before their games to protest racism and show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado took a knee and gave the Black Power salute after her floor routine. Such demonstrations are rare in China. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi said participants will “no doubt” have the same freedoms in Beijing as in Tokyo. Still, it remains to be seen how much Beijing will tolerate. Designated “protest parks” were set up outside the venues ahead of the 2008 games, but all permit applications were either withdrawn or rejected.

8. How are the preparations going?

Local organizers have already faced criticism. Training protocols were changed after a Nov. 8 luge accident that badly injured one of Poland’s top contenders in the event. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has complained about a lack of access to events that were open to domestic media. Snowmaking began in November and, as is typical ahead of major events, the Chinese government expanded pollution curbs around the capital to promote blue skies, including ordering a big steel hub to cap production through March. (Officials shut factories around Beijing in 2008 in a similar effort dubbed “Olympic Blue.”) Coming on top of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and control power usage nationally, the combined policies contributed to a power crunch across much of China in September and October. Air quality in the capital deteriorated in late October after authorities ordered increased coal production, part of a pledge to ensure the power supply this winter, which is forecast to be colder than normal. The Winter Games would be a priority as well.

9. Given the headwinds, what’s in it for China?

Xi has made restoring China’s global prestige a hallmark of his nearly decade in power, and the winter games is another opportunity to show off on the world stage. He also sees sports as a driver of economic growth, one that’s in line with the growing push for state-approved healthy and productive pursuits. In August the government pledged more spending on sports while criticizing online activities like private tutoring and gaming. With the new train from Beijing to the nearby ski areas and the momentum of the 2022 Winter Olympics, the nation aims to turn 300 million people into active winter sports enthusiasts by 2025 and grow the value of the industry to 1 trillion yuan ($155 billion).

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