When the International Olympic Committee met seven years ago to choose a host for the 2022 Winter Games, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, sent a short video message that helped tip the scale in a close, controversial vote.
China had little experience with winter sports. In the hills far away from outdoor events, little snow falls. Pollution was so dense at times that it was known as the “Airpocalypse.”
Mr. Xi vowed to resolve all this, putting his personal reputation on what seemed at the time like an ambitious bid. “We will deliver every promise we made,” he told the Olympic delegates meeting in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
China has delivered, with the Games just days away. It has plowed through the obstacles that once made Beijing’s bid seem a long shot, and faced down new ones, including an unending pandemic and mounting international concern over its authoritarian behavior.
As in 2008, when Beijing was host of the Summer Olympics, the Games have become a showcase of the country’s achievements. It is a completely different country now.
China no longer needs to prove its standing on the world stage; instead, it wants to proclaim the sweeping vision of a more prosperous, more confident nation under Mr. Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. The government used to try to placate its critics by making the Games a success. Today it defies them.
Beijing 2022 “will not only enhance our confidence in realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said Mr. Xi, who this year is poised to claim a third term at the top. It will also “show a good image of our country and demonstrate our nation’s commitment to building a community with a shared future for mankind.”
Mr. Xi’s government has brushed off criticism from human rights activists and world leaders as the bias of those — including President Biden — who would keep China down. It has implicitly warned Olympic broadcasters and sponsors not to bend to calls for protests or boycotts over the country’s political crackdown in Hong Kong or its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, the largely Muslim region in the northwest.
It has overruled I.O.C. In negotiations over health protocols for combating Covid, it has overruled the I.O.C. and imposed stricter safety standards than those in place during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last. It has insisted on sustaining its “zero Covid” strategy, evolved from China’s first lockdown, in Wuhan two years ago, regardless of the cost to its economy and its people.
Very few people today harbor illusions, unlike in 2008, that the privilege of hosting the event will moderate the country’s authoritarian policies. China then sought to meet the world’s terms. Now the world must accept China’s.
“They don’t need this to legitimize their rule,” said Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.” “And they don’t need to please the whole world to make the event a big success.”
The I.O.C. is like other international corporations or entire countries that have become so dependent on China’s huge market that very few people can or will speak out against the direction Mr. Xi has taken the country.
China’s critics, activists for human and labor rights and others have accused the committee of failing to press Mr. Xi to change the country’s increasingly authoritarian policies. This assumes that the committee can use its leverage.
When Mr. Xi’s government faced an international furor after smothering an accusation of sexual assault by the tennis player Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian, the I.O.C. The I.O.C. didn’t speak out. Instead, it helped to deflect fears about her safety and whereabouts.
China’s tenacious — many say ruthless — efficiency was precisely what appealed to Olympic delegates after the staggering costs of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and the white-knuckle chaos of preparations for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Mr. Xi promised that the toxic air that once engulfed Beijing has been replaced by blue skies. The trip from Beijing to distant locations has been cut by four hours using high-speed railways.
China constructed a network of pipes to supply water to a number of snow-making machines that were working in an area with low water supplies. Officials this week even claimed the entire Games would be “fully carbon neutral.”
Christophe Dubi, executive Director of the Games, stated in an interview that China proved to have been a partner willing to do whatever it took for the Games to succeed, regardless of the difficulties.
“Organizing the Games,” Mr. Dubi said, “was easy.”
Questions about human rights and other controversies that have been engulfing the Games have been deflected by the committee. While the committee’s own charter calls for “improving the promotion and respect of human rights,” officials have said that it was not for them to judge the host country’s political system.
The committee’s main concern is executing the Games. By selecting Beijing, the committee had alighted on a “safe choice,” said Thomas Bach, the committee’s president.
“We know China will deliver on its promises.”
Where snow is rare
Beijing’s bid to become the first city to host a Summer and Winter Olympics took root when Lim Chee Wah, the scion of a Malaysian developer of casinos and golf courses, moved to a booming Beijing in the 1990s and wanted a place to ski.
Five hours later, he drove northwest from Beijing on winding roads to reach a mountainous region that was home to potato and cabbage farmers. The area’s only ski resort was a single wooden building with a dining room, a handful of hotel rooms and a small ski shop.
“I went out and said, ‘Where is the ski lift?’ and they said, ‘You see this road going up?’” he recalled in an interview. Skiers were transported up the hill by a Toyota Coaster minibus.
Mr. Lim, who had learned to ski in the American resort town of Vail, Colo., soon struck a deal with the local authorities to turn 24,700 acres of mostly barren hills into China’s largest ski resort.
In 2009 he met with Gerhard Heiberg, Norway’s representative on the executive board of the Olympic committee, who had overseen the organization of the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. Together they began to imagine how the Games could be held in the hills close to the Great Wall of China.
China had previously applied for the Winter Olympics. It proposed to host the 2010 Games in Harbin (the former Russian outpost that is the capital city of the northeast province Heilongjiang). Vancouver, British Columbia won the 2003 competition. The city did not make it onto the shortlist. In the wake of Beijing 2008, Harbin authorities considered another bid but abandoned it when they realized that they were doomed to fail again.
The Winter Games were over by then. Vancouver was plagued by unseasonably hot weather. Sochi 2014 — intended as a valedictory of Vladimir V. Putin’s rule in Russia — cost a staggering $51 billion.
China gained an unexpected advantage by becoming more wary of organizing the quadrennial event. Beijing — no one’s idea of a winter sports capital — could reuse sites from the 2008 Games, including the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the opening ceremony. The Water Cube, 14 years ago the venue for the swimming and diving events, was renamed the Ice Cube.
Figure skating and short-track speedskating (which provided China its only gold medal in the 2018 Winter Games) will take place at the Capital Indoor Stadium, the venue of the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” between the United States and China in 1971 and Olympic volleyball in 2008.
China promised to spend $1.5 billion on capital projects for venues and that amount in operating expenses. This is a fraction of the costs for Sochi and the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang (South Korea), which cost almost $13 billion. “When you don’t have the pressure of money the way we do in other contexts, it is really different,” said Mr. Dubi of the Olympic committee.
Even so, China’s bid seemed unlikely to succeed, especially since the 2018 Games were also taking place in Asia and officials expected the next host to be in Europe. After one European city pulled out after another, Beijing was left competing against Almaty, once the capital of Kazakhstan.
Final tally was 44:40 for Beijing, with one abstention. Almaty’s supporters were left to fume over a glitch in the electronic voting system that prompted a manual recount to “protect the integrity of the vote.” That Kazakhstan has plunged into political turmoil on the eve of the Games seems now, in hindsight, further validation of the choice to pick Beijing.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch and I’m not being disingenuous or negative toward the Chinese — they probably would not have been victorious had some of those European cities stayed in the race,” said Terrence Burns, a marketing consultant who worked on Almaty’s bid and for Beijing when it secured the 2008 Games. “But you know what? They hung in there, and you know, winners find a way to win.”
An Underdog turns Olympic Power
Mr. Xi accepted the bid and declared that China would be a winter sports paradise, even though very few Chinese ski. He vowed in a letter to the Olympic committee that the Games would “ignite the passion” of 300 million people.
Six resorts can be found in the mountains close to Chongli, a small village near Zhangjiakou. These are the two Olympic clusters located in the mountains north and Beijing. According to Xinhua there has been a growing interest in skiing with 2.8 million visitors to the resorts in 2018 and 2019, compared to 480,000 three-years ago.
Mr. Lim’s resort was chosen by China’s Olympic organizers for the snowboard and freestyle skiing events.
Nearby is the venue where ski jumping is held. This complex was designed to look like a Qing dynasty-era ceremonial scepter. At the bottom is a 6,000-seat stadium that will host soccer matches following the Olympics.
Events that require longer, steeper slopes — the Alpine races — will take place in another cluster in the mountains near Yanqing, a district on the northern edge of greater Beijing. To create the seven courses, extensive blasting was required to chisel ski trails from the gray cliffs at the Great Wall.
The hills northwest of Beijing have the perfect winter temperature, even though climate change has raised concerns about whether some ski resorts will become too warm for snow. The area is short of water and snow.
The Beijing bid was rejected by the evaluation committee because it raised concerns about events taking place on barren brown slopes. “There could be no snow outside of the racecourse, especially in Yanqing, impacting the visual perception of the snow setting,” the committee’s report said.
China’s solution was to build pipelines and reservoirs to supply the machines that will cover the courses in snow. (Almaty’s slogan was a subtle dig at Beijing’s plans for artificial snow: “Keeping it Real.”)
Late last month, in the village in Chongli where many athletes will stay, the machines hummed day and night to blow plumes of snow not only on the runs, but also into the woods and fields nearby to create an Alpine veneer — at least for the television cameras.
Workers have also planted tens to thousands of trees, using an elaborate irrigation system. Many trees are arranged in straight rows and appear less natural than large Christmas tree farms.
The Olympic Helmsman
In the months prior to the 2008 Olympics Mr. Xi was given the responsibility of final preparations. He had only recently joined the country’s highest political body, the Politburo Standing Committee. This was a test of his leadership abilities.
He was particularly interested in military preparations for Games, including the installation 44 antiaircraft batteries around Beijing. Even though it seemed unlikely that an aerial attack would be made on the city,
“A safe Olympics is the biggest symbol of a successful Beijing Olympic Games, and is the most important symbol of the country’s international image,” he said then.
Preparations for these Games reflect Mr. Xi’s style of governance. He has been at the center of each decision — from the layout of the Olympic Village in Chongli, to the brands of skis and ski suits. He expressed preference for Chinese ski equipment, in keeping with increasingly nationalistic policies.
When Mr. Xi went to inspect venues in the Chongli district of Zhangjiakou for the first time in January 2017, he ordered the local authorities to make sure that they did not build too much — a frequent tendency of officials in China who use any international event as an excuse for extravagant projects.
He has visited the Olympic venues five times altogether to check on progress, most recently earlier this month, when he said managing the Games well was China’s “solemn pledge to the international community.”
It has been a challenge to maintain the political resolve that attracted Olympic officials. Top officials, exhausted from managing the Summer Games in Tokyo tried to persuade Beijing organizers to follow a similar approach to dealing with the coronavirus. China’s insistence on continuing with its “zero-COVID policy” created “a lot of natural tension,” Mr. Dubi said.
In the end the Olympic committee bowed to China’s demands for a far more invasive daily testing regimen, requiring thousands of individuals inside a bubble to provide daily throat swabs in an operation that Mr. Dubi said would be “massive” and “complex.”
When Peng Shuai’s accusation of sexual harassment rocked the sports world last fall, the committee found itself caught in the furor.
The official she accused, Zhang Gaoli, oversaw China’s preparations for the 2022 Games for three years until his retirement in 2018. The authorities in China scrubbed her accusation from the internet and sought to deflect attention away from the issues — only to see concern over her fate redouble calls for a boycott of the Games or their sponsors.
Cloistered inside their offices in Lausanne, Switzerland, officials could do little except issue a statement suggesting that “quiet diplomacy” was the correct course.
Officials of some national Olympic Committees vented in private. They feared reprisals for speaking out on their own without the protection of an international committee.
The 2008 Olympics received harsh criticisms as well. A campaign led by the actress Mia Farrow called the event the “genocide games” because of China’s support for Sudan despite its brutal crackdown in the Darfur region. Protests were held in cities across multiple continents to stop the traditional torch relay from being carried.
China is facing even more serious accusations today. The United States and other countries have declared that China’s crackdown against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang amounts to genocide. Ms. Farrow’s biting sobriquet has resurfaced for 2022, with a Twitter hashtag.
“The severe repression that China has rolled out in Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Hong Kong has all taken place since 2015,” the year that the Olympic delegates awarded Beijing the Games, said Minky Worden, who has followed China’s participation in the Olympics for Human Rights Watch for more than two decades.
“The I.O.C. would be within its right to say that these issues have to be addressed,” she said. “They haven’t.”
There have been hints of misgivings about the choice of Beijing — “All the political issues driving the agenda today were not on the radar seven years ago,” Michael Payne, a former Olympic marketing director, said — and yet the Games will go on.
Coronavirus prevents foreign spectators and ordinary Chinese from attending the Games. China will instead allow only its own spectators to be screened. It will mostly be a performance for Chinese and international television audiences, offering a choreographed view of the country, the one Mr. Xi’s government has of itself.
Beijing may have fewer problems with the Olympics if the coronavirus is controlled. This is a far better outcome than what seemed possible when Beijing won the rights to host the Games seven years back. Mr. Xi’s government has already effectively declared it a success. Dozens of other Chinese cities are also vying for the 2036 Summer Olympics.
“The world looks forward to China,” Mr. Xi said in an New Year’s address, “and China is ready.”
Chris BuckleyContributed reporting Claire Fu, Liu Yi Li YouContributed research
Source: NY Times