This is not the Olympics that Beijing hoped to host.
When China won the 2022 Winter Games in a surprisingly close vote by the International Olympic Committee seven years ago, few could have predicted how much the world and the host country would change upon their arrival. .
But now they are here: at the beginning of the third year of a pandemic; when the second consecutive Olympics were closed to almost all fans; and at a time when an increasingly confident China has made clear its intention to host one of the world’s biggest and most global sporting spectacles entirely on its terms.
To get to this point, China has cleared the hurdles that once made Beijing’s candidacy seem remote; overcoming new ones by enclosing the Games (and, he hopes, the coronavirus) in a gated community the size of a small town; and ignored condemnation on the world stage for its human rights abuses, brutal treatment of its neighbors and increasingly authoritarian behavior.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who once put his personal prestige on the line to support Beijing’s bid, recently hailed the Games as a showcase of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Combining sport and power politics, it will host Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday, the day of the opening ceremony, as the Ukrainian crisis continues.
Yet for a mighty and proud China, and for its grateful IOC partners, it will also be an Olympics of firsts – including, not least, seeing Beijing become the first city to host both the Summer and Olympic Games. ‘winter. Its Olympics will be the first for seven new disciplines, for a new generation of athletes and for much of China, where winter sports are growing in popularity.
The rise to power was of course not without problems. The Russian, Czech and Norwegian teams have reported coronavirus outbreaks that could jeopardize their medal hopes. At least two American bobsledders have also tested positive. But big stars remain: Mikaela Shiffrin in alpine skiing. Chloe Kim and Shaun White snowboarding. Figure skaters Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu.
As at Games past, there will be athletes whose stories transcend borders, like Chinese-American freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who will chase gold medals in three events, and others will try to cement the legacy in their disciplines. Johannes Klaebo, the Norwegian cross-country skier, will try to win six medals in a single Games. Ireen Wüst, the Dutch speed skater, will be aiming for a medal at a fifth consecutive Olympic Games. And then there’s Claudia Pechstein who is chasing one of her own, somewhat incredible, at 49 years old.
Their hopes and challenges will unfold in the 17 days after Friday’s Opening Ceremony, broadcast to the world behind (mostly) closed doors, when the crowds are absent but the victories, disappointments, drama and grief. will be all too real.