Beijing (AFP) – China’s ambitions to be a global sports hub have taken a hit as the postponement of this year’s Asian Games has further isolated a country already cut off by its sweeping zero-Covid strategy.
The ruling Communist Party has boosted its global image with a series of dazzling spectacles such as the 2008 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, tennis and golf tournaments featuring all the major world stars and an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix.
The country also wants to host the FIFA World Cup.
But with the exception of this year’s Winter Olympics – which were held in a closed-loop, virus-safe Beijing bubble in February – the world’s most populous nation has canceled or postponed nearly every event. since the emergence of Covid in Wuhan at the end of 2019.
The Olympic-sized Asian Games became the latest and greatest casualty on Friday as organizers decided to delay the multi-sport extravaganza “after carefully considering the pandemic situation and the size of the Games”.
No new date has yet been given for the continental showpiece, originally scheduled for September 10-25 in the eastern city of Hangzhou with around 10,000 athletes due to compete in 40 sports.
The World University Games due to start next month in Chengdu have also been postponed for a second time due to “continuing uncertainty over conditions”.
They were part of a series of announcements on Friday as the Asian Youth Games were also canceled, having already been delayed once, and two prestigious Diamond League athletics meetings later this year in Shanghai and Shenzhen have been suspended.
China’s expensive and labor-intensive Winter Olympics bubble – when participants took daily Covid tests and were not allowed to mingle with the public – now appears to have been the exception rather than the rule, experts said.
Sport in limbo
The Winter Olympics “were a huge political priority and nothing was going to stop them,” said Mark Dreyer, author of “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.”
“The Asian Games are big, but not big enough,” he told AFP.
Beijing has maintained strict Covid measures including instant lockdowns, mass testing and long quarantines to quell outbreaks even as other countries learn to live with the virus.
Event calendars will remain in limbo as long as China sticks to zero-Covid, Dreyer said.
A revamped FIFA Club World Cup has already been suspended indefinitely, while major events such as Formula 1’s Chinese Grand Prix and the ATP Tour’s Shanghai Masters tennis have been scrapped since the declaration of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.
The HSBC-Champions World Golf Championships tournament has not taken place since 2019, when it was won by former world number one Rory McIlroy.
Strict conditions leave all visiting athletes facing multiple Covid tests, difficult entry rules, reduced flights and potentially long periods of isolation if they test positive.
Beijing has argued its Covid policy has saved lives, and a Chinese expert told AFP he sees “no problem” with the country continuing to bid for major tournaments.
“Once the pandemic is under control, these events will be great spectacles,” he said, requesting anonymity to speak freely.
“It’s very good that the government controls epidemics so strictly. If other countries don’t get it, it’s not our problem.”
But Dreyer argued that uncertainty over Beijing’s Covid policy could force some to reconsider their ties to China.
“Nowhere else has these restrictions,” he said.
“When do sporting bodies say, ‘Sorry, no, you can’t continue to postpone these events, because Covid is no excuse’?”
Global sports organizations have courted China closely in recent years, eyeing revenue to be made from the country’s vast market.
Influential Chinese sports blogger Du Liyan said the idea of foreign sports capital abandoning the country was “not very realistic”.
“The Chinese market is still quite large, and its sports industry is still in its infancy and showing tremendous growth,” he told AFP.
But foreign sports organizations have also faced headaches in China as political wrangling has taken its toll on the sporting agenda.
The Women’s Tennis Association pulled out of the country last year following complaints of sexual abuse by Peng Shuai against a former senior Communist Party politician.
And the wildly popular NBA was frozen after a team official tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s democracy protesters in 2019.
These issues are creating a “perfect storm” for disengagement from the Chinese market, according to Dreyer, adding, “China is increasingly seen as not worth it.”
© 2022 AFP