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Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics: competition, controversy, COVID-19

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Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics: competition, controversy, COVID-19
As Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics starting February 4, China is facing uncertainties around a global spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and an ongoing international backlash against human rights abuses. Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, to begin Feb. 4, will bring together the world's top athletes to chase gold on the snow and ice. But concerns over China's human rights abuses and a global pandemic entering its third year are casting a long shadow over the Games.

China is determined to keep COVID-19 from disrupting its Beijing showcase and has reacted to a recent outbreak in the city of Xi'an with its strictest lockdown measures since the earliest days of the pandemic.

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Organizers have continued to express confidence in their rigorous safety measures at the Games, including a "closed loop" bubble that will keep all athletes and participants separated from the public. Spectators from outside the country will not be allowed, with limited attendance from locals expected.

The United States will field a team of more than 200 medal hopefuls, but won't be sending government officials, as Washington is leading a diplomatic boycott over China's human rights abuses, primarily its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

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For its part, Beijing has called the boycott a "farce" and says that politicizing sports runs counter to the spirit of the Olympics. Organizers have vowed to deliver a "streamlined, safe and splendid Olympic event" to the world.

Looking ahead, here's what to expect:

The Games

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held from Feb. 4 to 20. Some 2,900 athletes from 85 countries and Olympic committees will compete in a record 109 medal events.

The Paralympics are scheduled for March 4 to 13.

The host

Beijing, the Chinese capital of more than 20 million, is the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

The 2008 Summer Games announced China's re-emergence as a major player on the international stage, while the 2022 Games find a country that has grown into a superpower jostling for global dominance.

And, as in 2008, China's human rights record is drawing criticism, protests and calls for boycotts.

China is spending an estimated $3.9 billion to hold the Games, a fraction of the $43 billion it spent in 2008. The country has been pushing to raise the profile and popularity of winter sports at home, with an announced goal of having 300 million people participating by this year.

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Organizers will have to use massive amounts of artificial snow for skiing events, spraying up to 1.2 million cubic meters to compensate for the limited snowfall in the Beijing area.

Venues

Events will be held in three zones: central Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, with several sites from the 2008 Games being reused.

Beijing

Central Beijing will mainly host ice sports and a handful of snow events. The Opening and Closing ceremonies will be held in National Stadium, known as "The Bird's Nest," which became an iconic symbol of the 2008 Games.

Yanqing

This mountainous suburb 45 miles northwest of Beijing, which includes a portion of the Great Wall, will hold alpine skiing and the sliding events of bobsled, luge and skeleton.

Zhangjiakou

A popular Chinese ski destination, Zhangjiakou is roughly 110 miles northwest of Beijing, and will host snowboarding and ski events including freestyle, cross-country, ski jumping and biathlon. A new railway line connecting to Beijing was built for the Games.

Event highlights

Figure skating remains a perennial favorite, with fans looking forward to a showdown between Japanese superstar Yuzuru Hanyu, the gold medalist in 2014 and 2018, and Nathan Chen of the United States, a three-time world champion.

Hanyu was sidelined for an ankle injury for eight months last year, but turned in a dominating performance to win the Japanese national championship last week.

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On the women's side, 15-year-old Russian phenom Kamila Valiyeva looks to be the favorite, capping a spectacular 2021 season with a win at her country's nationals by record margins.

Hockey lovers had been excited by the prospect of NHL players returning to the Games after skipping Pyeongchang in 2018. However, growing concerns about COVID-19 and a rising number of game postponements led the league and the Players' Union to reverse course and opt out of Beijing.

Seven new events will debut at the 2022 Games, including men's and women's freestyle skiing big air and women's monobob, a one-person version of bobsledding. Mixed-team events have been added in ski jumping, freestyle skiing aerials, snowboard cross and short-track speedskating team relay.

Team USA athletes to watch

Mikaela Shiffrin, Alpine Skiing: The 26-year-old Alpine skiing star, one of the most decorated World Cup athletes in history, will be looking to add to her Olympic hardware collection after winning a slalom gold in Sochi 2014 and a giant slalom gold and combined silver in Pyeongchang in 2018.

On Dec. 27, she announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19, causing her to miss World Cup events.

Chloe Kim, Snowboard Halfpipe: One of the breakout stars of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games as a 17-year-old, snowboarder Chloe Kim won halfpipe gold and went viral with a tweet about being "hangry" after not finishing breakfast. After a 22-month hiatus, Chloe got back on the board in 2021 and is favored to win gold again.

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Nathan Chen, Figure Skating: The 22-year-old is a three-time world champion and five-time American champion, but finished a disappointing fifth in the individual competition in Pyeongchang in 2018. Chen is taking a leave of absence from his studies at Yale and will be on the hunt for gold in Beijing.

Erin Jackson, Speed Skating: The Florida native was a surprise Olympian in 2018, making the jump from roller derby to the U.S. speed-skating squad after just four months on the ice. Jackson, 29, continued to surprise with a meteoric rise to the top of the sport in 2021 and is a gold medal favorite in the 500-meter event.

John Shuster, Curling: Shuster, a four-time Olympian, won bronze at Torino in 2006 and captained the U.S. men's team to its first-ever gold medal in curling in Pyeongchang in 2018. At age 39, he is looking for a repeat performance, and is bringing most of the team from four years ago along with him.

COVID-19 challenges

China is facing its most serious outbreak in the last year, and on Dec. 27 placed Xi'an, a city of 13 million, on a strict lockdown to contain the spread as it maintains a "zero-COVID" policy. Recent news accounts say food is in short supply.

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Organizers have vowed a "streamlined, safe and splendid" Olympics with prevention measures even more stringent than those at the Tokyo Summer Games.

All athletes, officials, media and other personnel will be kept strictly separated from the public in a "closed loop" bubble, and they will be tested every day. Unvaccinated participants are allowed to come to Beijing, but will have to undergo a 21-day quarantine on arrival.

Organizers announced in September that overseas spectators would not be permitted to attend the Games. While the Tokyo Games were held in front of near-empty stadiums, Beijing has said that fans from mainland China will be allowed.

Details on stadium capacity have not yet been finalized, and the fast-spreading Omicron variant remains a wildcard.

The Omicron variant, however, will not postpone the Games, according to International Olympic Committee official Juan Antonio Samaranch, who said in early December that organizers "have prepared for any possible contingency."

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced it will require all athletes, coaches and staff to be vaccinated before going to Beijing.

Boycotts, human rights criticism

The United States announced in December that it would not send diplomatic or official representation to Beijing over what White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki called China's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses."

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Researchers say that an estimated 1 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs have been held in re-education camps in China's Xinjiang Province, and have been subject to abuses that include torture, forced labor and forced sterilization.

A handful of countries have joined the diplomatic boycott, including Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Belgium. Japan said it will not send government officials, but members of its Olympic Committee will attend.

Several other key U.S. allies, including South Korea and France, announced they would not participate in the boycott, which French President Emmanuel Macron called "symbolic and insignificant."

China also is facing protests and calls for boycotts over human rights violations in Tibet and crackdowns on pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong.

China's foreign minister Wang Webin condemned "attempts to politicize sports in the name of human rights and freedom," saying they "violate the spirit of the Olympic Charter." Wang added that boycotters "will pay a price for their erroneous moves." 

Where's Peng Shuai?

Heightening the concerns about China hosting the Olympics for many was the mysterious disappearance in November of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, a Wimbledon champion and three-time Olympian, after writing on social media that she had been sexually assaulted by a top Communist Party official.

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Peng made the allegations about former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli on the Chinese social media site Weibo on Nov. 2 and wasn't seen again until nearly three weeks later, when she held a video call with IOC chairman Thomas Bach.

The IOC said in a statement afterward that Peng appeared "safe and well," a reaction that has drawn criticism by those still demanding answers about Peng's treatment and the silencing of her allegations.

On Dec. 1, the Women's Tennis Association announced a suspension of all tournaments in China, and its head, Steve Simon, has continued to call for a full investigation of her claims.

Peng has been seen on a handful of occasions in photos and videos released by Chinese state-run media. At a ski event in Shanghai on Dec. 19, she spoke on camera with a Singaporean outlet and said there had been "many misunderstandings" about her Weibo post and that she "never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me."

The WTA responded to the video clip, saying that it still did not satisfy concerns about her well-being and human rights researchers continue to raise questions about Peng's freedom and safety.

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