LANE ONE: Beijing’s hermetically-sealed Winter Games served both athletes and China’s propaganda purposes

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● Plus: Beijing 2022: About 56% of athletes tested for doping ~ Football: Three own goals sink New Zealand in 5-0 loss to U.S. women

If you listen to the International Olympic Committee’s Swiss-based staff directors who guide and monitor the work of the Olympic organizing committees, you’ll hear endlessly about the “delivery” of the Games, as if it were a pizza or a prescription or a sofa.

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games – known as “BOCOG” – demonstrated that this concept is way off base. The 2022 Winter Games were not delivered, they were staged.

What’s the difference? The XXIV Olympic Winter Games was a show, designed to send multiple, powerful messages to specific audiences. In this, the effort was wholly successful. The messages were sent; how they were received is another matter. Consider the audiences:

● Athletes and Teams:
Amid a continuing pandemic, in a country with a “zero tolerance” policy against Covid-19, the primary task of the organizing committee – to host the athletes and teams and put on the competitions – was a raging success.

The weather was often bitterly cold, with devastating wind-chill factors and gusts that significantly impacted the skiing and biathlon events. But the events went on, with not too many postponements and all 109 events, the most ever in a Winter Games, were held.

There were plenty of medical staff to help with anyone who needed assistance and lots of friendly volunteers to support the BOCOG staff and the phalanx of International Federation technical teams which actually operated the competitions.

The Villages worked, the transportation was not perfect at first, but – as usual – got better and better as the Games went along and people figured out how to use the system. And China’s authoritarian regime provided the expected rigid environment for more than two million total Covid tests, day in and day out.

There were some serious complaints from teams about the conditions for those who had to be isolated, including pleas on social media for better food, online access, equipment for training and so on. These issues were acknowledged by BOCOG and conditions were improved fairly promptly and the complaints ebbed.

In a welcome effort to circumvent the pandemic, the IOC’s Olympic Broadcasting Services team brought in the same technology pioneered at the Tokyo Games, making direct contact with family and friends back home possible through on-the-field video hookups at multiple events. Most events had very few (invited) spectators and none from outside China.

But from the athlete point of view, the Games took place in quality venues that were well run and showcased the technical prowess of the Chinese organizers. And as long as the venues and Villages were good, the IOC was fully satisfied, as confirmed by President Thomas Bach (GER) in his 18 February news conference.

As for Covid control, out of almost 2,900 athletes and probably another 3,000-plus support personnel in the Villages, there were only 185 total positives: 116 caught at the airport and 69 inside the “closed-loop management system.”

● External audiences:
The Chinese also mounted a support program for other visitors to the Games, such as the media corps of perhaps 9,000, as mentioned during one of the daily briefings. Here, the results were more mixed.

The technically-impressive Opening and Closing Ceremonies highlighted the theme of peace, with the spectacular ending fireworks on the 20th spelling out – in English – “One World One Family,” above the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing.

That was one message. There were others.

On the first weekend of the Games, a reporter from Japan’s Kyodo News Service was trying to interview a Hong Kong athlete in the purpose-arranged mixed zone at one of the skiing venues when he was restrained by a security officer, ending the discussion. The incident was reported, discussed at one of the daily briefings – shown live on the IOC’s YouTube channel – and did not happen again.

The BOCOG spokesman, Weidong Zhao, and spokeswoman, Jiarong Yan, were unfailingly polite, day after day, but rarely actually answered any direct questions. As much as 30-50% of the seats at most venues were going to be filled with invitees, but there were only a few hundred at most sites (with some exceptions); repeated requests for the number of spectators across the Games were politely dismissed.

But on the 17th, Yan interjected comments usually heard from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, calling Taiwan (as interpreted into English) “an individable part of China” and responding to inquiries of IOC spokesman Mark Adams (GBR) about concentration camps and forced labor in the Xinjiang Province with “I think these questions are very much based on lies.

Bach noted that the IOC had spoken to the organizers about the political interjections immediately afterwards, but the last of the daily briefings had come and gone. Yan got in her shots.

In fact, BOCOG and the Chinese government got a huge break with the explosion over the Russian doping story starring teen figure skater Kamila Valieva. That drama consumed the media’s attention from 8 February – just four days in – through the last day of the Games, when a petition to have the Team Event medal ceremony held from the nine U.S. skaters who won the silver medal was dismissed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

That meant that the focus on Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai – of great interest at the beginning of the Games – was essentially dropped. She met with the IOC as promised, she went to some events (and was photographed) as a guest and disappeared from sight while the Valieva tale played out. Zhao and Yan went right along.

The volunteer corps was also part of the show. BOCOG announced that there were 18,196 volunteers, of which 94% were under 35 years of age. Estimates indicate that the Beijing area – as of late 2021 – had about 26% of the population between 15-34 years of age, so this was a purposeful selection to showcase China’s youth to the world. It was not, as is often discussed in the U.S., “diverse, equitable and inclusive.” They were cast members, no less than at Shanghai Disneyland.

The Covid controls were highly successful, with just 135 positives across 2,071,745 tests (less than 0.01%) inside the closed loop for non-Village residents, compared to 188 positives at the airport, across 10,076 tests (1.9%) since the implementation of the closed loop on 4 January. There was no spread to the Chinese population outside the closed loop, with medical-test personnel in hazmat gear a constant, daily sight at the Games.

While there were no foreign spectators allowed at the Games as a Covid-prevention measure, the television viewership in Asia was reported as excellent, with more than 80% of the Japanese population tuning in. The IOC’s preliminary estimate that the Games would be seen by about 1.4 billion people outside of China. They saw a very well-run show.

All of this nevertheless took place against the backdrop of China’s well-known aggressions against Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, diluting the impact of the play on the Olympic stage.

● National audiences:
Across China, interest in the Games was high, with a reported 600 million viewers of the Games, an astonishing total, even for the world’s most populous country.

This was partly due to China’s hosting of the Games, but also to the usual host-country performance bump, which saw Chinese athletes record their best-ever medal totals: 15 in all, with nine gold, four silver and two bronze. The prior highs were 11 total medals and five golds; China had 176 athletes in this Games, nearly double the prior high of 94 in Vancouver in 2010.

At the daily news conference, IOC spokesman Adams made it a point to call on Chinese media for about half the questions, but the topic was almost always the same, regardless of who was asked to answer. How is China doing?

In Bach’s news conference near the end of the Games, a member of the national Xinhua News Agency asked typical – if this time more direct – questions:

“As we are reaching the end of the Games, did everything meet your expectations? And if you are invited to rate the Games, what kind of score you would give us?

“Second is, under the pandemic and such a fragile world, what do you think a success for the Beijing Games will signify to the world, especially to the Olympic Movement?”

Bach reserved his comments for his remarks for the closing of the Games, where he praised the organization and the support of the Chinese people in making the event possible.

The closed-loop management system made sure, as the official daily testing statement noted, that all Olympic visitors “are completely separated from the outside society.” The anti-Covid measures appeared to be quite effective, but had the happy by-product for the Chinese Communist Party of eliminating almost all interaction between the Chinese population at large and Olympic visitors.

Was the Games a success? Yes, especially when considering the athletes and the competition, which is now the nearly sole focus of the IOC. The staging wasn’t flawless, but very, very good and it appeared to make the desired impression on the national audience, in view of the big television and streaming numbers. The show was a hit.

The reviews from others were more mixed and will continue to be reviewed against the continuing questions about Peng’s safety, the Valieva case and the coldness, both in the weather and under the veneer of the smiling, young and helpful cast members.

Rich Perelman

The International Testing Agency tweeted on Sunday:

“The ITA has collected more than 3’000 samples during the Winter Games and tested at least 56% of participating athletes. More detailed information on our comprehensive anti-doping program will follow soon.”

That’s quite good if they tested the right 56%!


● Football ● Suffering an own goal is deflating. But New Zealand defender Meikayla Moore had a horrible day at the office, kicking three U.S. shots into her own goal, in the fifth, sixth and 36th minutes, on the way to a 5-0 win for the American women at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.

All came as the result of relentless U.S. pressure from the kickoff, a reaction to going scoreless against the Czech Republic in the first game of the 2022 SheBelieves Cup.

The first came off a free kick by U.S. striker Sophia Smith that Moore was trying to clear. The second was on a cross by defender Sophia Huerta, intended for Margaret Purce. The third was on a Purce cross from right to left that Moore kicked into the goal while attempting to clear it.

Moore left, dejected, in the 40th minute and the game had been decided. The U.S. got second-half goals from Ashley Hatch in the 51st minute and from substitute striker Mallory Pugh in stoppage time at 90+3.

The U.S. out-shot the Football Ferns, 19-6.

Iceland defeated the Czech Republic in their game by 2-1 to lead the tournament with a 2-0 record and six points. The U.S. is second with four (1-0-1), followed by the Czechs (0-1-1) and New Zealand (0-2). The U.S. and Iceland will meet on Wednesday in Frisco, Texas for the tournament title.

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