LANE ONE: Can the athletes save the Beijing 2022 Winter Games?

The U.S. team at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony in PyeongChang. (Photo: Jon Gaede)

Remembering back all of one year ago, Japan in general and Tokyo in specific was in a lather over whether the once-postponed 2020 Olympic Games should be postponed again, or just canceled in view of the continuing Covid pandemic.

Last May, an Asahi Shimbun poll showed 83% of the 1,527 respondents did not want the Games held in 2021.

The Games were held anyway, were an enormous success on Japanese television and are generally seen now as a statement by Japan that even the Covid pandemic could not stop its hosting of the world’s largest sporting event.

Now we come to the Beijing Winter Games and the hysteria is upon us once again.

An ESPN report prior to the Tokyo Games observed, “Japanese media, according to those with whom I spoke, are driving skepticism. Daytime news-panel shows trot out an endless roster of guests criticizing the government’s decision to allow the IOC to hold the Games.”

For Beijing, it’s not the host-country media which are upset, but media from outside, highly critical already of China’s abusive behavior against Hong Kong, the Uyghur Muslims and others, and its aggressive stance with Taiwan.

And, with three days to go to the Opening Ceremony on 4 February, the attention is all on Covid.

The Chinese government instituted a complete separation of the Olympic participants from the rest of the population, called the “closed loop system” in order to ensure that those coming into the country did not infect the local population.

Through 31 January, the incidence of infections inside the “closed loop” remains very low, at 13 cases for athletes and team officials since the imposition of the closed-off sector on 4 January, and 72 others, such as media, officials and Beijing 2022 staff.

But the virus is much more prevalent among those coming to the Games – as the Chinese had feared – with 54 positives in 3,378 tests for athletes and team officials at the airport (1.6%) and 133 among 7,315 tests for other stakeholders (1.8%) since 4 January. That’s a lot compared with China’s announced “zero tolerance” policy on Covid, but as the Beijing 2022 testing announcement notes, the Olympic-related personnel being tested “are completely separated from the outside society.”

By comparison, the Tokyo 2020 Games organizers reported that through the end of their Games, a total of 35 athletes and team officials reported infections, vs. 13 inside Beijing’s closed-loop so far. But there were only 37 airport positives for all stakeholders in Tokyo vs. 187 so far in Beijing.

Competition will actually start tomorrow with the first matches in the Curling mixed doubles, joined by Freestyle Moguls qualifying and women’s ice hockey on Thursday and either competition or training in six sports prior to Friday’s Opening Ceremony. If the Beijing Games is to be known for anything other than Covid and the closed loop, it will be the athletes who will have to make it happen.

Already, the virus has struck down Austria’s Marita Kramer, the dominant women’s ski jumper on the World Cup circuit this season. Winner of six out of the 11 events held so far, she was clearly the favorite, but will have to stay home now.

If you’re trying to look ahead to when you might feel better about the Games, consult the Olympic schedule here. For American audiences, the Figure Skating Team event starts on Friday (4th) and the first U.S. medal of the Games could come Saturday, but more likely in the women’s Moguls on Sunday or certainly on Monday, from Mikaela Shiffrin in the women’s Alpine Giant Slalom, the figure skating Team event, from defending champ Red Gerard in the snowboard Slopestyle or perhaps from Brittany Bowe in the women’s 1,500 m in speed skating.

With so much uncertainty, the medal standings could get jumbled, but other major issues present in Tokyo are now in the background in Beijing. Rarely heard these days are the formerly-raging debates on Olympic Charter Rule 40 restrictions on marketing efforts by non-Olympic sponsors and not much on Rule 50.2 “athlete expressions” of protest on social issues. Especially in view of a warning of “certain punishment” for any “expressions” which are deemed – by the host country – to be against the “Olympic spirit” or against China’s highly-restrictive speech laws.

Instead, the motto will be: “We came, we competed, we left.”

Communist governments are often – if not always – concerned with their appearance vis-a-vis democracies, and so it is no surprise that China is working with the International Olympic Committee to have some spectators at the Games. Although no tickets are being sold, the Chinese will invite spectators, with the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi (SUI) saying that perhaps reduced attendance of 30-50% of planned capacities are possible, depending on the venue.

From the host’s point of view, Beijing will have spectators where Tokyo had none.

Dubi also said that the IOC was insistent that not only Chinese citizens would be invited, but also foreign nationals living in China, with embassies being requested for assistance.

NBC does not have an easy two weeks ahead of it in Beijing, but with much of the Olympic staff in its Stamford, Connecticut broadcast center, it will be able to produce a lot of programming and hopefully, people will tune in. Recall that for the 2018 PyeongChang Games in Korea – in the same time zone – NBC averaged a 19.8 rating for its showcase primetime broadcast, with the Opening Ceremony pulling a huge 28.3 rating for its primetime replay (after being shown live at 7 a.m. Eastern time).

For the Tokyo Games, the primetime show averaged only a 15.1, with about 150 million people tuning in at some point.

Low ratings will be a concern for both NBC and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, but both will worry about such issues after both the Olympic Winter Games and Winter Paralympic Games (4-13 March) are concluded.

Coming back safe and sound is the priority. As usual, the joy will come from the athletes; it isn’t coming from anywhere else.

Rich Perelman

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