OOn the eve of these Olympic Games marked by more controversy and sound deafness than any since Moscow in 1980, Thomas Bach was asked a simple question. What was his message to the Uyghur people of China, who believe they are being suppressed?
“As far as the Uyghur population is concerned, the position of the IOC must be to give political neutrality,” Bach said, before offering a history lesson on the end of the Ancient Games in Greece after a thousand years because of the Roman interference. “We don’t comment on political issues because… if we get involved in political intentions, conflicts and power struggles, we put the Games at risk.”
Bach was aiming for realpolitik, and also not to upset his hosts. The problem with his strategy, however, was that it was bound to upset everyone.
To claim an equivalence between the Chinese Communist Party and Uyghur Muslims, the powerful and the powerless, the elite and the damned, was damning enough. But against the backdrop of harrowing stories of millions of Uyghurs forced into re-education camps, where some claim they were raped or sterilized, his comments were as cold as the tip of his old aluminum blade.
Human rights groups, some of which have dubbed them the “Genocide Games,” will try to keep the world’s attention on the issue by protesting outside the White House on Saturday. But in China, which denies any abuses in Xinjiang and calls such allegations “the lie of the century”, such criticism is irrelevant. For them, the goal of these Olympics is delivery and glory.
China Daily, the official English language mouthpiece for the Chinese government, said excitement for the Winter Games had already “climbed” in Beijing. They may be right. But what might be iron truth might also be rampant propaganda; the sporting equivalent of bringing in record grain harvests during a famine. It’s impossible to know. This is because of a second component that runs through these Games: the “closed loop” Covid regulations which are the most restrictive in history.
Throughout their stay in Beijing, athletes, officials and journalists will be cut off from the outside world; their life limited to the airport, hotel, special buses and Olympic venues. Getting out of the bubble is impossible. In the Guardian’s case, that would involve evading nearly a dozen hotel security guards and jumping over a 10ft high fence. Beijing police even warned residents to stay away from Olympic vehicles in the event of an accident.
Even so, some of the world’s best athletes will be absent. The top female ski jumper, Austria’s Marita Kramer, is one of them, having failed to recover from the virus in time to travel to the Chinese capital.
Others are in a government isolation center, hoping they will be released in time. So far, no British athlete is among them.
Such measures are apparently designed to prevent the spread of Covid among the local population. But they have a handy byproduct to keep journalists and athletes hooked and perhaps less willing to speak out too. In this area, however, Bach was more encouraging and forceful, promising that freedom of expression would be protected. “We had that in Tokyo, it will be here, it will be in Paris, whoever hosts the Games,” he added.
There was a kick, however, with Bach clearly hoping that athletes would keep controversial views to themselves. “If an actor goes into a theater playing Hamlet, then nobody ever asks the question when he plays Hamlet, he must or should express during the play his political opinion,” he said at one point. . “It’s the same for athletes.”
To protest or not to protest, that is the question. Meanwhile, there was good news for domestic fans too, with organizers confirming that 150,000 spectators would be invited to attend the events over the next fortnight. However, no international supporters were allowed to enter China.
So what about Britain’s chances? There are always more risks in winter sports than in their summer equivalent, where the risk of a crash landing is higher than on a track or a bike. Nevertheless, it is not excluded that Great Britain will break its record of five medals at the Winter Games, with its world champions in curling and Charlotte Bankes in snowboard cross in the lead.
Elsewhere, the Jamaican four-man team will bring nostalgia and diversity to a Games that remain predominantly white. But the battle to be the star of these Olympics is likely to be between Eileen Gu, a Chinese athlete born in California, who is aiming for three gold medals in big air, slopestyle and halfpipe, and the American skier Mikaela Shiffrin.
Shiffrin already has three gold medals to her credit and, if she can win three more, she will become the most decorated Olympic alpine skier in history. But she has previously admitted the pressure was on, saying, “It’s not like rainbows, sunshine, butterflies and whatever people sort of say.”
Speaking of history, when the Games are declared open on Friday, Beijing will become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. History, of course, is different from legacy. Although this legacy is not yet fully written, the first chapters are not exactly encouraging.