Beijing Winter Olympics under way amid strict COVID restrictions and diplomatic boycott

Beijing became the first city to host both a winter and summer Olympic Games when it launched a locked-down Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Friday.

The ceremony returned to the same now-familiar, lattice-encased National Stadium known as the Bird’s Nest, built in consultation with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei for the 2008 summer event.

The country where the coronavirus outbreak emerged two years ago will proudly project its might, even as some Western governments mounted a diplomatic boycott over the way China treats millions of its people.

And while some are staying away from the second pandemic-hit Olympics in six months, many other world leaders planned to attend the opening ceremony.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — who met privately with China’s Xi Jinping earlier in the day as a dangerous standoff unfolds at Russia’s border with Ukraine — was the most notable dignitary in attendance.

Uyghur crackdown leads to boycott

The Olympics — and the opening ceremony — are always an exercise in performance for the host nation, a chance to showcase its culture, define its place in the world and flaunt its best side.

From Sarajevo to Sochi and Sapporo to Salt Lake City, the Winter Olympics are particularly captivating for the impressive sports feats in ice and snow.

But at this year’s Beijing Games, the gulf between performance and reality will be particularly jarring.

Fourteen years ago, a Beijing opening ceremony that featured massive pyrotechnic displays and thousands of card-flipping performers set a new standard of extravagance to start an Olympics that no host since has matched. It was a fitting start to an event often billed as China’s “coming out”.

However, the hope for a more open China that accompanied those first Games has faded.

For Beijing, these Olympics are a confirmation of its status as a world player and power. But for many outside China, particularly in the West, they have become a confirmation of the country’s increasingly authoritarian turn.

Chinese authorities are crushing pro-democracy activism, tightening their control over Hong Kong, becoming more confrontational with Taiwan and interning Muslim Uyghurs in the far west — a crackdown a number of governments and human rights organisations have called genocide.

China says the camps are “vocational training and education centres” that are part of an anti-terror campaign. It denies any human rights violations and says it has restored stability to Xinjiang, a region it insisted in the months after the 9/11 attacks was rife with extremism, often with little evidence.

Such behaviour led leaders of the United States, the UK, Australia and Canada, among others, to impose a diplomatic boycott on these Games, shunning appearances alongside Chinese leadership while allowing their athletes to compete.

Political issues overshadow sports

The pandemic also weighs heavily on this year’s Games, just as it did last summer in Tokyo.

More than two years after the first COVID-19 cases were identified in China’s Hubei province, nearly 6 million human beings have died, and hundreds of millions more worldwide have fallen ill.

The host country itself claims some of the lowest rates of death and illness from the virus, partly because of total lockdowns imposed by the government that are instantly apparent to anyone arriving to compete in or attend the Winter Games.

In the lead-up to the Olympics, China’s suppression of dissent was also on display in the controversy surrounding Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.

Last year, she disappeared from public view after accusing a former Communist Party official of sexual assault. Her accusation was quickly scrubbed from the internet, and discussion of it remains heavily censored.

Concerned for her safety, tennis greats and others outside China demanded on social media to know, “Where is Peng Shuai?”

A surreal cat-and-mouse game has since unfolded. Peng made a brief appearance at a youth tennis event and spoke by video link with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach as part of efforts to alleviate concerns about her.

While the political issues have overshadowed the run-up, as with any Olympics, attention will shift Saturday — at least partially — from the geopolitical issues of the day to the athletes themselves.

All eyes turn now to whether Alpine skiing superstar Mikaela Shiffrin, who already owns three Olympic medals, can exceed sky-high expectations.

Many viewers and sports fans will be interested to see how snowboard sensation Shaun White will cap off his Olympic career — and if the sport’s current standard-bearer, Chloe Kim, will wow us again, and whether Russia’s women will sweep the medals in figure skating.

And China is pinning its hopes on Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old, American-born freestyle skier who has chosen to compete for her mother’s native country and could win three gold medals.

Strict pandemic rules evident

As they compete, the conditions imposed by Chinese authorities offer a stark contrast to the party atmosphere of the 2008 Games.

Some flight attendants, immigration officials and hotel staff have been covered head-to-toe in hazmat gear, masks and goggles. There is a daily testing regimen for all attendees, followed by lengthy quarantines for those testing positive.

Even so, there is no passing from the Olympic venues through the ever-present cordons of chain-link fence — covered in positive messages of a “shared future together” — into the city itself, another point of divergence with the 2008 Games.

China itself has also transformed in the years since. Then, it made its most significant leap yet onto the global stage by hosting those Games as an emerging global economic force.

Now it is a fully realised superpower hosting these. Xi, the head of the 2008 Olympics, now runs the entire country.

Outside the Olympic “bubble” that separates regular Beijingers from Olympians and their entourages, some expressed enthusiasm and pride at the world coming to their doorstep.

Zhang Wenquan, a collector of Olympic memorabilia, showed off his wares Friday while standing next to a 2008 mascot. He was excited, but the excitement was tempered by the virus that had changed so much for so many.

“I think the effect of the fireworks is going to be much better than it in 2008,” he said. “I really look forward to the opening ceremony. I actually wanted to go to the venue to watch it. I have been trying so hard to watch it at the scene. But because of the epidemic, there may be no chance.”