2022 Winter Olympics: IOC sidesteps shambles as athletes face added layer of stress

Jacquelin MagnayNews Corp Australia Sports Newsroom
Snowboarder Belle Brockhoff pictured in the unique gloves. Supplied
Camera IconSnowboarder Belle Brockhoff pictured in the unique gloves. Supplied Credit: Supplied

The International Olympic Committee has been less than forthright when it comes to the Beijing Winter Olympics, which opens this Friday night.

In every public utterance, the tone is of effusive praise for China and the Beijing organisers, with little regard for the shambles that is going on behind the scenes.

There is little acknowledgement of being complicit, and even encouraging of China’s extreme demands on Olympic visitors, that is creating such a layer of stress for the athletes it is almost impossible for them to compete at their best.

IOC president Thomas Bach — a 1976 Olympic fencing champion — has yet to fully acknowledge the increasingly unfair conditions being placed on competitors and the chance lottery of the timing of catching Covid.

Instead he praises the Chinese measures as providing some sort of safe environment, when the conditions on the ground are anything but.

No one is scared of getting the virus, but everyone is highly anxious about the isolation and treatment and being stuck in China if they do get infected.

Let’s just count how many of the 100 IOC members turn up for the event they own. Princess Anne is out, so too Australia’s John Coates, who is undergoing back surgery.

The IOC session, its annual general meeting, has cut its agenda to a brief one day, with most members tuning in from the comfort of their lounge rooms. It could be that less than 20 per cent of IOC members arrive in China.

One who did turn up, the athletes commission chair Emma Terho, tested positive on Friday in Beijing and she claimed it was proof the countermeasures system was working.

Yet the 72 pages of “playbook” rules, which have been approved by the IOC bosses in Lausanne as the highly restricted way of life at these Olympics is protecting not the athletes, but the Olympic coffers and billions in television broadcast fees.

As much as Mr Bach and others claim they are acting in the best interests of competitors to forge ahead with the Games, they cannot pretend that this has been without significant impact on athletes’ mental health and often their future careers and earnings. Why not just postpone the Games for another year?

Instead, just getting on the plane — which has to be a special charter leaving from only a handful of airports around the world — is a day-long exercise in completing and uploading details, down to the hours timing of each vaccination and converted to jpeg. Understanding the logistics of the PCR tests and various QR codes is complicated and confusing.

Thousands of competitors, team officials and broadcasters, technicians and journalists are then arriving at Beijing airport, having already had two, and sometimes four negative PCR tests in hand and being subjected to such brutal arrival testing that it is leaving some with bleeding noses.

So far more than 200 Olympic participants have tested positive to Covid-19 while arriving in Beijing and are then put into isolation — some for an indeterminate time, others being ruled out of their competitions and unable to do their jobs.

No one can get on a plane back home until they are negative. Those who have been near the positive cases are deemed close contacts and have to undergo PCR tests every 12 hours for a week amid tight restrictions on their movements.

The athletes have been under a month-long nightmare of ducking and weaving from Covid — with mask wearing, imposing bans on mum and dad and friends, isolating from the outside world by being in a bubble of their coaching staff, all carried out under the threat of missing their Olympic chance.

Now we are seeing some athletes getting Covid and it’s clear that Omicron has infiltrated the Olympic closed loop in Beijing. On Saturday there were 11 positive cases picked up in the closed loop, three of which were from the Olympic village.

The ability of organisers to restrict the spread of the virus inside the loop with their super-strict mask wearing, social distancing and fully vaccinated conditions will be seen in the next few days.

The IOC members say that once the competition starts, most people won’t care about what has gone on beforehand or who is missing. Instead the television pictures will show spectacular venues and engaging competition.

But at some stage the Olympic bosses, from Mr Bach down will have to reconsider their wholehearted indulgence of the strident countermeasures and ponder was it really worth it?

‘Lukewarm’: What the Chinese really think of Winter Games

When Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, crowds poured onto the streets of the Chinese capital bursting with national pride. Two decades later, locals are noticeably lukewarm about the Winter Games.

The build-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start next Friday, has been largely muted, with an absence of the ubiquitous slogans, extravagant floral arrangements and flags from last time.

“The enthusiasm is not as strong as in 2008,” said one Beijinger surnamed Liu, who preferred not to give his full name.

Winter Games generally attract less attention than Summer ones, but the apparent ennui could also be down to a changing Chinese perception of their country’s power.

“In 2008, the economic stature of the country was not yet so high in the world so we thought hosting the Olympics was a symbol of national rebirth,” Liu told AFP.

“Today, the Games are a sporting event like any other.”

Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has become the second-largest economy in the world and the warmer image it pushed back then has been replaced by a fiery nationalism.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has presented a far more muscular attitude to world affairs.

“2008 really was China showing that it was firmly on the global stage,” said Heather Dichter, sports historian at De Montfort University in England.

Simon Chadwick, sports industry expert for Emlyon Business School, said: “It was almost like the relaunch of brand China — it was a coming-out party, it was an announcement that China was back on the global scene.

“China perhaps feels less dependent on the rest of the world (now) and in a position of strength, which means that it no longer worries so much about the external gaze.”

Fans and bubbles

In addition, with Beijing 2022 the second Olympics to be held under a coronavirus shadow, measures brought in to ensure that the Games are Covid-safe have left many of the capital’s residents feeling locked out.

Two years of a global pandemic have up-ended the organisation of all big sports events, but China has maintained a strict “zero-Covid” policy, keeping its borders largely closed since spring 2020.

Beijing is counting on the Games to showcase the success of this approach, which it has repeatedly hailed as mirroring the success of its system of top-down governance.

“If there is a resurgence of the epidemic during these Games it will clearly be a failure for China and potentially backfire for Beijing,” said Carole Gomez, specialist in sports geopolitics at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

The Games will have no international spectators and only a small number of invited domestic fans.

Foreign athletes will be locked in a tight bubble and all Olympic sites are sealed off from the rest of the city.

During a recent rehearsal of the opening ceremony at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium, police blocked off all the streets leading to the main Olympic Park for as much as a kilometre away.

Local Jiang Haoliang told AFP he has little interest in the Olympics. “Most people won’t be able to attend in person,” he shrugged.

‘Ideological heat’

The reduced enthusiasm for the Games might also be down to the simple fact that winter events generally arouse less public interest than Summer Olympics.

This is particularly true in China, where government efforts to build interest in winter sports have been ramped up in recent years but started from a nearly non-existent base.

And while China is a superpower in the Summer Games, it is a relative minnow in winter sports.

“Winter sports in China tend to be much more the domain of the affluent middle classes,” said Chadwick.

“For some of the events, like curling, it might be somewhat an esoteric event that doesn’t capture the popular imagination the same way.” But these Games also land in a very different China to the more outward facing country from two decades ago.

A more nationalistic Beijing is riding heightened tensions with Western nations and some of its neighbours, with confrontations escalating since Xi became president in 2013.

Foreign media has been facing mounting challenges in recent years in the country, while the space for any form of domestic criticism has tightened dramatically.

“The ideological heat has been turned up,” said Chadwick. “And so we don’t know how susceptible people have become to this portrayal of outsiders as somehow being hostile, as well as being potential transmitters of the virus.”

Hot topics off limits as staff safety big news for Beijing broadcasters

—Jacquelin Magnay

Heavyweight global broadcasters who have paid tens of billions of dollars for the rights to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games are dramatically paring back news coverage of sensitive Chinese issues, amid a nervousness about the safety of staff on the ground.

Insiders at the Seven Network, the official broadcasters for Australia, say “we are not taking any chances” and “the Chinese are not up for any criticism”. A detailed memo has been distributed to staff about the sensitivity of their Games coverage.

Aussie athletes are also being cautious, with some having taken on board advice to speak up on issues that concern them only once they have finished their competitions and left the country. The Games opening ceremony is next Friday evening, February 4.

Hot topics such as treatment of the Uighers, the whereabouts of tennis player Peng Shuai and the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan are being sidelined to specialist new teams back in home countries, if covered at all.

The BBC, which will broadcast 300 hours of coverage in Britain, has not even referred to China in its promotions for the Games, distancing itself from the country with anonymous graphics of athletes as ice figures.

In a letter obtained by News Corp, the BBC director general Tim Davie has responded to political concerns, led by the Tory MP Nusrat Ghani, who is a member of the Members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

Ghani asked the BBC “to adhere to its editorial principles in covering what some have called the Genocide Olympics” and that its coverage of the Beijing Olympics “will have to be balanced between Chinese state propaganda and the ongoing Uighur genocide”.

But Davie said it was customary for both BBC News and BBC Sport to cover the Winter Olympics in “the discrete way that our audiences would expect’’. He added that the Winter Olympics would “focus on the sporting events and related sporting stories’’.

US network NBC Universal, which has paid US$7.6bn for the rights to the Games up until the Brisbane 2032 Olympics, is discovering, for the first time, that its demands for wider access to cover news stories as well as broader cultural pieces are falling on deaf ears.

Last month they pared back their on-site team, switching commentators in the high-rating sports of figure skating, alpine skiing and snowboarding from being ringside in Beijing and Zhangjiakou to the NBC’s Connecticut studios. This was because executives feared they would not have control of what was happening to their staff on the ground.

While most of Australia’s commentators are based in Melbourne, Seven has a small mainly technical team of around 40 in China.

The potential sports-washing of China’s reputation throughout February is something that has been also raised in the US.

29-year-old Nimroy Turgott will be part of the Jamaica's bobsleigh team which have qualified for the Winter Olympics for the first time in 24 years. Olivia Chan reports.

Republican politicians have sent a letter to Comcast Corp NBCUniversal executives asking about the level of influence the Chinese Communist Party and the IOC has in NBC’s 2022 Winter Olympics programming.

The Beijing Olympics will be the first held under super-strict restrictions on movements, including the broadcasters having to use Chinese drivers, and all media representatives not being able to walk even short distances from the hotel to Games venues.

Movements of all Games participants, including eating meals, are heavily confined to venues, the media centre and hotels or the Olympic village, all within a “closed loop’’ system that prevents journalists from interviewing Chinese people or travelling outside the tightly monitored areas.

German journalists have raised several questions to the IOC about the integrity of the daily Covid PCR testing, which they believe could be exploited to confine and punish media representatives on the pretext they had tested positive. Under rules agreed to by the IOC, positive Covid cases will be kept in isolation facilities, or in a Chinese hospital, until they produce two negative tests, which could for three weeks.

The IOC says a medical review panel — made up of 15 Chinese health officials and five Olympic experts — will look at cases where people are consistently testing positive after a fortnight to try to allow them to leave. In the past few days only one team official has tested positive upon arrival at Beijing airport, compared to 40 other stakeholders, mainly foreign media.

Sarah Cook, research director with Freedom House, said self-censorship by the broadcasters at the Olympics was “very, very problematic” and it could pose difficulties if there is a newsworthy incident, such as an athlete making some sort of protest.

“China wants to make people afraid and self-censor themselves,” she said, adding that to have a completely sterile Olympics broadcast would be “really terrible” and “unfair” and it would encourage Beijing to do it more.

In one foreign embassy Olympic briefing, one concerned journalist queried if it was safe for him to criticise China’s preparations because the mountain zone doesn’t have any snow.

While the 72 pages of “playbook” rules are to enforce China’s zero-Covid strategy, the measures are extreme: Chinese residents have even been told not to assist Games vehicles if they are involved in an accident. Broadcasters are also contained within four different bubbles within the loop system.

Officially broadcast executives are saying that they will reflect China’s place in the world during the coverage of the Games, but in news conferences, insiders have told News Corp there is mounting concern about the type and intensity of stories to be covered.

“We have people on the ground (for the Olympics) and so we are being very, very cautious about our overall tone, and we will be concentrating almost exclusively on the sport,’’ one senior executive said.

Andrew Georgiou, the president of sports at Discovery, which holds the European Olympic rights, said at the European launch of the coverage that his network wouldn’t shy away from social issues, promising “we are going to address it”.

But his caveat was: “We’re also a sports broadcaster and we will also be focused on athlete performances and what’s going on on the big stage and doing the best we can to show those stories.

“Hopefully the Olympics should shine a light on that and bring all the Olympics back to a really interesting story for the consumer.’’

Olympic executives have conducted masterclasses in obsequiousness at every recent press conference and technical briefing, claiming that the Chinese venues and field of play are “so outstanding, we can have fantastic sport here in Beijing”.

Yet the Lausanne-based organisation has cut short its annual centrepiece, the IOC session, and many of the 100 IOC members are not even coming to the Chinese capital.

Aussie Olympic gadget is just nuts

– Jasper Bruce

It‘ll be literally impossible for the Australian winter Olympic team to get cold feet at the Beijing Olympics.

In an Aussie Olympic first, athletes at this year’s Games will have battery-powered heaters in their socks and gloves to help combat the chilly conditions in northern China.

The gloves and socks, supplied by Aussie snow apparel brand XTM, boast three different heat levels and can be used for up to six hours at a time.

The accessories feature artwork by Indigenous Olympian Paul Fleming, who represented Australia as a featherweight boxer at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

“It is an absolute privilege to be able to celebrate Australia’s proud Indigenous Olympic history as the Team competes in Beijing,” said chef de mission Geoff Lipshut.

“To know the athletes are connecting to Australia’s rich Indigenous history, in a design by a fellow Olympian is a special honour.

“Thank you Paul Fleming for sharing this artwork, I can’t wait to see our athletes wearing this kit in just a matter of days.”

The hi-tech gloves and socks have already proven a hit with the Aussie Olympic team.

“I love (XTM’s) socks, they’re the best and their gloves are so warm and toasty,” said Snowboard Cross athlete Josie Baff, who is competing at her first Winter Olympics.

“I’m so grateful we can have their support again for the Olympics.

“This design is so cool, ‘Walking Together’ is so fitting for the Games.”

This piece of gear is just nuts. Image: Supplied
Camera IconSnowboarder Belle Brockhoff pictured in the unique gloves. Supplied Credit: Supplied

Baff’s fellow snowboarder Cameron Bolton said he was a fan of Fleming’s design.

“The artwork’s just fantastic, I’m so proud to be wearing this,” Bolton said ahead of his third Olympics.

“The artwork represents everyone coming from all over the world, all colours, religions and backgrounds coming together to the Olympic Games.”

Supplying gear for the team for a fifth Games, XTM is also kitting the Aussies out with base layers, boots bags and accessories for Beijing.

Originally published as 2022 Winter Olympics: IOC sidesteps shambles as athletes face added layer of stress

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