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Shanghai (AFP) – The Beijing Winter Olympics had emerged as one of the most politically divisive in memory and with fears over Covid, but most of those events receded once skis and skates were put on.
The Chinese capital wraps up its second Olympics on Sunday, pulled off with cold precision and authoritarian muscle that temporarily put it on the map of winter sports nations and give its ruling Communist Party something to celebrate.
“These are the most politically charged Games that have been held with so much controversy,” said Richard Baka, co-director of the Olympic Research Network at Victoria University in Melbourne.
“But we’re coming out of this without much fanfare, partly because China was in control of everything pretty well.”
The United States waged a diplomatic boycott over China’s rights record, particularly allegations of widespread abuse in Xinjiang, and there were fears over the more contagious Omicron variant of Covid.
Chinese authorities had also warned of the repercussions if foreign athletes spoke out against Beijing and there were environmental concerns over a Winter Games being held almost entirely on artificial snow.
But in the end, the episode that tarnished the Games the most was a Russian doping scandal that engulfed 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva.
It even snowed so much one day that events were disrupted, while another major talking point ahead of the Games – the fate of Peng Shuai – was carefully staged with the tennis player making fleeting appearances.
In November, she accused a former deputy prime minister of sexual assault, but she told French sports newspaper L’Equipe in Beijing that her allegations were a “huge misunderstanding”. However, fears for his safety remain.
Politics comes into play
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who has always been unlikely to criticize the hosts, called it a “very successful Winter Games”.
“Here in Beijing, it’s obvious that the athletes are more than happy,” Bach said.
“They are extremely happy with the venues, (Olympic) villages, services offered and the security in the ‘closed loop’ under these very difficult circumstances under the fast-spreading Omicron variant.”
Bach, however, chastised local organizers for bringing politics into the Games when a spokeswoman publicly called out “lies” about Xinjiang.
The Games took place in a Covid-secured “closed-loop” bubble, home to nearly 3,000 athletes and around 65,000 others – the size and rigor of it was unprecedented in the pandemic for a sporting event and will be a defining memory of Games .
The restrictions meant that no tickets were sold to the public and that a very limited number of spectators were instead handpicked and seated socially distanced, which led to sometimes flat atmospheres in the halls.
In the United States, the IOC’s most lucrative TV market, audiences were down around 50% halfway through the Games compared to Pyeongchang in 2018.
Bread and circuses
But the Communist Party will generally see it as a job well done that ticks several of its boxes.
With vast resources and manpower, he kept Covid under control through the no-frills bubble, playing into China’s narrative that its one-party system and “zero Covid” are an example for the world. There were nearly 450 positive cases over four weeks in the bubble, including athletes, but new daily infections were zero towards the end.
The athletes’ political gestures over accusations of Chinese genocide against its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang or the growing crackdown in Hong Kong and Tibet have never materialized. Diplomatic boycotts by the United States and its closest allies have had little impact.
There were no major organizational mistakes as Beijing became the only city to host both Summer and Winter Olympics, and China delivered at least half of President Xi’s promise Jinping to hold “safe and splendid” Games.
“It wasn’t a blockbuster, but they’re going to be credited for managing to manage this under difficult circumstances,” said David Bachman, a China expert at the University of Washington.
The Games enabled the Chinese government to provide local audiences with what Bachman calls “the bread and circuses” of Roman emperors –– winning over the masses with a spectacle.
A country of winter sports?
The Communist Party is deeply concerned with maintaining its relevance to a new Chinese generation and its propaganda machine has served up a steady diet of patriotism to be pumped with a hip spoonful, epitomized by young stars like the US-born freestyle skier. United Eileen Gu.
“It’s gripping drama and sometimes fantastic performances, and nothing beats the nature of the competition itself to tell its own story,” Bachman said.
He added that Gu in particular is gold for China’s global soft power ambitions.
Born to a Chinese mother, she represented the United States but moved to China for the Games and won two of China’s nine gold medals.
The Olympic hosts regularly enjoy a medal bump and China have easily achieved more success than they have ever had at the Winter Games.
This is presented to us as proof that China has climbed onto the podium of “winter sports nations”, with the connotations of “rich country” that go with it.
Bachman said it also bolsters Xi’s efforts for the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – the country’s Communist Party-led emergence from past war, political chaos and stagnation.
© 2022 AFP