Reflections on the Winter Olympics in Beijing 2022 – Essay by Michael Malzer
As the 14th Winter Olympic Games draw to a close in Beijing, eagerly followed by some, but largely unnoticed, ignored or even boycotted by others, I feel the need to reflect on these two weeks of televised spectacle. To be sure, there seems to be little left that has not already been talked about in the run up to the games. For many journalists, academics and members of the public alike, this is the moment they want to move on to other topics, rather than look back. Too much had happened which spoiled the event for many (especially Western) observers from the start: China’s human rights situation having reached new lows throughout the country but particularly in the Northwestern Xinjiang region, a wave of increasingly aggressive nationalism and a tense situation in the international political sphere regarding the status of Taiwan and the nature of Hong Kong’s political system. In addition, the Sino-US trade war, the mutual accusations on fake news and hybrid information wars, including on the never-solved issue of the origin of the covid crisis, which has tightly gripped the world for two years, as well as renewed tension between NATO and Russia, and a seemingly new alliance between China and Russia, and the stage is set for an Olympics which can only be seen as the most political and politicized in many years. Then, there was the obvious discrepancy of the games being simultaneously praised as the most sustainable (by the organizers) and criticized as the least sustainable (by pretty much everyone else in the Western press). Not to forget that after the Tokyo 2020 games, held just over half a year earlier in 2021, Beijing 2022 also marked the second ever Olympics fully set within a “bubble” – separating the spectacle almost completely from the everyday life of the host city. As thousands of foreigners were flying directly into the bubble during the pandemic – contrast this with thousands of Chinese nationals stuck abroad with no flights carrying them home – the scene was set for two weeks of competitions which nobody appeared to be genuinely looking forward to. And still these games were transmitted into the living rooms of millions of people and became – almost by default thanks to the large market of its host country – the most watched winter Olympics of all time. The games provided sporting records, spectacular images, emotions, controversy and politics. They also invite us to ponder about some aspects of modern life which most of us have taken for granted: the fact that we live in countries, belong to them by means of citizenship, represent them – and some of us even win or lose for these countries in competitions. These mechanisms seem to be self-evident, despite or even because of an increasing awareness of fluidity and complexity of identities and senses of belonging. But let me go through the aspects in order:
Much has been written about Beijing, China’s capital, becoming the first city in the world to ever having hosted both summer and winter Olympic games – the summer ones happened less than fourteen years earlier. To be sure, this honor could have gone to Germany’s Munich, which attempted the same coup – but was stopped by a referendum which showed that a majority of locals saw more drawbacks than benefits of staging such an event. With so much criticism directed at Beijing’s hosting of the games coming from a human rights and international politics dimension, it should not be forgotten that there is a local dimension as well. The choice of Beijing out of all cities in China certainly had to do with this summer and winter games record – but it is also grounded in the capital representing Chinese political and symbolic power. Beijing is China’s center, one of the few cities an international audience would be familiar with, and one that is perceived as China’s most prestigious and competitive in terms of educational and professional opportunities by a large part of China’s population, most of whom will never be able to become its citizens. It is only fitting from the government’s perspective that this place, also known for its tumultuous and often violent history, is presented as a beacon of stability and order, a welcoming but firm host of the world’s nations – some of which, and this is a lot fresher in Chinese collective memory than abroad – once invaded this place. Yet the city hosts foreigners as guests, on its own terms and according to its own rules. In order to do so, it built locations for a number of standardized games, most of which are Western inventions and have no tradition in China.
From a Chinese perspective, the fact that this city used parts of its countryside and adjunct nature reserve in its northern mountainous area to build large-scale sporting facilities, is far from surprising. In doing so, it keeps well within the framework of Chinese urbanity. Not only do rural counties belong to a city administratively – they are also meant to serve the urban core. With rural life and smallholder farming long having lost its once prominent position within the nation, the countryside is being either urbanized or converted into a rural place consumable for urban dwellers – be it as a place for rural tourism, as a wine region or as a place to perform winter sports in. The colonization of the surrounding areas by an urban core – and more and more by an urban elite for weekend leisure – is the logical outcome of decades of Chinese urbanization discourses. What China got wrong from a Western critic’s perspective is the aspect of sustainability – even if this term is taken up very readily by the organisers and held up rhetorically. To be fair, this point has been portrayed somewhat one-sidedly: at least, Beijing finally found some use again for their momentous structures constructed for the 2008 summer games. For instance, the famous bird’s nest hosted the opening and closing ceremonies and the aquatic center was converted to a temporary curling rink. The new outside facilities are now at least located near the country’s major city and might be used again domestically – it is easy to criticize China building oversized constructions while not being a winter sports country, but when looking at e.g., German dominance at all sliding competitions, one can get an idea on how important facilities for practice are. The logic of building something first and expecting it to be used later is also very much in line with China’s general urbanization logic: If you build it, they will come. Admittedly, this sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – only time will tell whether it does in this case.
It should be noted that Beijing can get very cold, and anyone who has visited the city in the winter months will likely have memories of people ice skating on frozen lakes in the city’s parks. Thus, ice-based winter sports do not seem that out of place in the city. That being said, holding alpine and cross-country events in an area known for its water scarcity where all the snow needs to be artificially produced is certainly undermining any notions of sustainability and “green” games. From my perspective, China missed a chance here – not only could they have impressed by staging actual sustainable games, but they could also have taken the opportunity to advertise a lesser-known region of their country, such as the city of Harbin and the natural skiing resorts in the Northeast. China’s cities are little known abroad – the ones that are consist mainly of Beijing, Shanghai, maybe Guangzhou and – for the wrong reasons – Wuhan. Bringing a new region to worldwide public attention could have been a smart move (just think of how much airtime Italy’s Cortina D’Ambezzo got during Beijing’s closing ceremony alone), but then again, maybe the CCP has little interest in promoting peripheral regions like the ski resorts near the Korean border, or in – of all places – Xinjiang into international focus. Instead, Beijing was put back on the screens of millions worldwide, cementing its status (or aspiration) as a world class metropolis.
China is not a winter sports country, though it expects these games to catapult it to become one. 300 million people, so the official claim goes, have participated in winter sports in the lead up to the games. One should be more than skeptical about the feasibility of almost one quarter of China’s population having done anything remotely resembling winter sports, though it is likely that interest really has increased and will increase due to these games – with ice skating probably still the most likely sports to be able to become popular, since, as already hinted at above, China’s skiing areas are limited. It is doubtful that winter sports can ever be a mass phenomenon in China (large parts of the country are just not meteorologically suitable), though even if it stays a niche, the market for winter sport in a 1.4 billion people country is admittedly still large.
China ended the games in third spot on the medal table, ranking behind Germany (83 million inhabitants) and Norway (5.4 million inhabitants). The comparison of population figures shows that quantity alone does of course not automatically lead to more success. Crucially for Chinese nationalists, the PRC placed one position ahead of the United States (though their superstar freestyle skier, American born Gu Ailing certainly helped, and some results are still provisional, as will be discussed below). Despite China’s success, interest in the games within society as a whole appeared to be largely selective and sporadic, if my anecdotal evidence of talking to various Chinese contacts is any indication. Certainly, it did not help that the games were largely taking place behind closed doors, and with minimal contact to the rest of society. All that was left to do for Beijingers was line up in front of official merchandise stores in order to buy some version of the official mascot Bing Dwen Dwen, which became a hot commodity due to its scarcity – a fact Chinese state media celebrated, as it meant that copyright protection laws were upheld, with hardly any fakes on the market – something admittedly unlikely to have happened a decade ago.
The Covid Bubble
Introduced for the first time in Tokyo for the summer games, the Covid bubble was perfected for the winter games in Beijing. The goal for China was to stick with their zero Covid strategy domestically, while containing spread within the bubble as well as possible. With a closed loop system covering the airport, the village and the competition venues in addition to mandatory daily PCR tests for everyone, the bubble became a parallel reality next to Chinese society. Of course, Olympic villages have always been temporary global societies dropped like alien spaceships into host cities (the term Global Village is never as apt as for the Olympic Village), but usually athletes would freely mingle and go sightseeing outside the world of sports, and thus develop at least a minimal connection to the locality. In Beijing, these connections were reduced to some interaction with volunteers, who have to quarantine before re-entering their own society – and they had to wear protective gear even in the presence of athletes who get tested daily. To be sure, some local spectators were allowed to get into the facilities (unlike in Tokyo), and some VIPs were able to permeate the bubble even without standard quarantines – IOC president Thomas Bach became the first foreigner to personally meet Xi Jinping in almost two years, despite having only quarantined for three days upon arrival in Beijing. Generally speaking, the goal of containing the virus largely worked, and while some athletes recounted hard times in hotel quarantines, the disruptions were in fact not as high as many had expected. Fears that positive covid tests could be used to prevent competitors for Chinese medal hopes from starting were unfounded – in fact, even positive athletes with low virus loads were given the green light to appear on the field, a stark contrast to how Chinese authorities view anyone with the virus outside the bubble (including people recovered from the virus, who face high hurdles boarding flights to China). The bubble thus worked as a perfect contained shell, almost of Truman-Show-like qualities. Perfect HD pictures were produced for multiple world feeds to be picked up by broadcasters around the globe, while no distracting elements (i.e., foreign fans with banners or other unseemly behavior) could disturb the show. As such, the bubble might have been even a blessing in disguise for the CCP – social control could be perfected. The fact that the bubble also was the only place in China without the Great Firewall in place did not even matter much, beyond athletes posting on their Instagram feeds.
Thomas Bach and the IOC
The above anecdote on Thomas Bach meeting Xi Jinping without long quarantine is perhaps indicative on the influence the International Olympic Committee has on the world stage. Stressing that sports and politics should be separated, Bach has never even hinted at an inch of criticism towards the host country and has himself perfected the art of deflection during press conferences. Only once did the question of Xinjiang came up in an official press conference, and a local spokesperson for the organizers denounced the Western accusations as lies – admittedly, here, too, Bach reacted with a reminder to keep politics out of sports. Generally speaking however, his staunch rejection of answering non-sports related questions, and his cultivation of a rhetoric of peace, harmony, unity and other phrases which sound conspicuously similar to CCP slogans, have been ostensibly welcomed by Chinese leaders – who even erected a statue for him. It is somewhat unsettling to remind oneself that the Würzburg University alumni and former fencer is most certainly for most Chinese the only German (or Western) functionary they have ever heard speak for any significant length of time on Chinese State TV. Bach spoke during the opening and closing ceremonies, and the host certainly did not have to worry about transmitting this speech. The only political point he made beyond general calls for peace, was a reminder to donate more covid vaccines to poorer countries – something that was cheered by the Chinese audience, who doubtlessly connected it to the CCP’s discourse on vaccine diplomacy.
To be fair, it was always unlikely that Bach (or any other IOC president) would directly criticize China’s human rights record. But there are ways in which one could save the host’s face while still drawing clear lines as to where one’s own values lie. Bach, however, seemed to be happy hiding behind the slogan of (alleged) separation between politics and sports, while still selectively employing politics when he saw it fit. Maybe his surprisingly stark criticism of Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva’s coach, which by the way got him a rebuttal by the Russian deputy prime minister, was his attempt to make a point that he, too, could criticize – in fields where little opposition was expected, of course. The fifteen-year-old Valieva was involved in the games’ biggest sporting-related scandal of note, when she was announced to have tested positive for a forbidden heart medication in December. This announcement was made a day after the Russians had won the figure skating team event, which resulted in no medals for this event being distributed. In the singles’ run a week later, the fifteen-year-old folded under pressure and failed to win a medal, to the dismay of her coach, whose apparent cold-heartedness in turn caused some dismay in Thomas Bach.
Human Rights and other issues
From the very beginning, Western media connected the games to China’s poor human rights record. China was accused of staging these games as a propaganda show to legitimize and deflect from its current social policies and its authoritarian political system. Comparisons to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which were used as a propaganda spectacle for Nazi Germany, were frequently made. China of course aggressively refuted any criticism, insisting – very much in line with the IOC – that the games should not be politicized. Of course, China itself has boycotted Olympic games before – in 1980 it even joined the US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer games. Yet, it is exactly this boycott of 1980 (and the subsequent counter boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984 by the Eastern Block) that has made boycotts unpopular among nations. A silent consensus had been reached that athletes should not be refuted their sometimes once-in-a-lifetime chances to participate in this pinnacle of sports competition. Instead, diplomatic boycotts were initiated by some nations, including the US and the UK. Yet, these were rather tame attempts to show action, for several reasons: firstly, only a few countries joined this boycott call – there was no unified stance even within Western countries. While most European leaders stayed at home, many of them did so citing private reasons or the covid situation, most simply refrained from any official decision. Secondly, the fact that covid had just disrupted travelling and international meetings for two years anyway, did not make the absence of world leaders in the (sparsely seated) Bird’s Nest during the Opening Ceremony seem particularly noteworthy. Lastly, some country’s leaders did actually appear in Beijing – most prominently Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who used the event to demonstrate strengthened ties with Xi Jinping and gather support for his own aggressive foreign policy at the Ukrainian border. If anything, the pictures created this way visualized to the Chinese public which countries apparently supported them, and which did not. The reason for their boycotts would hardly have been apparent to most of them – and yet the list is long: Xinjiang is the most prominent point of contention. China’s de facto abolishing of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the logic of one country, two systems, and its increasingly prominent (though not new) threat of forced “reunification” of the island of Taiwan are other points frequently cited. Let us turn to some more concrete examples from the games, which relate to these points of contention.
Dinigeer Yilamujiang was an athlete virtually unknown to even cross-country skiing insiders until she appeared as one of two athletes lighting the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. Western media quickly pointed out that she must have been chosen because of her Uyghur ethnicity only, as an attempt by the party state to display a member of the Uyghur minority and convince the world (or at least a domestic audience and non-Western countries) that the repression of Uyghurs could not be true. In the international press, comparisons were made to Cathy Freeman, an aboriginal Australian who lighted the flame at the Sydney 2000 games (but who was also already a distinguished athlete at the time), and even of Jewish athletes being part of the German team during the 1936 Olympics to appease the foreign press (Deutschlandfunk, February 19th). China Daily (February 2nd) rejected Western media only stressing her Uyghur identity, arguing that Yilamujiang had been selected for her merits and because she was from Xinjiang, the place where skiing allegedly originated. That Yilamujiang then only finished 43rd in her first cross country event on day one of the games, and only reappeared on the last day of the games, finishing practically last in the 30km race without much notice certainly contradicts her having been chosen for her skiing skills. One could argue that the fact that she was not allowed to give interviews to the Western media reflects the poor handling of press relations by the Chinese authorities. If we take up the Chinese perspective for a moment, would this not have been an opportunity to present a Uyghur person who could eloquently describe her home in the way the party state wanted it to be seen? Another ironic point of the China Daily article is it directly accusing Western news outlets of having allegedly omitted the athlete’s name – “Dear NYT, her name is Dinigeer Yilamujiang”, it points out, arguing that her full name deserves to be included. Apart from the fact that not even the Chinese audience would have known that name, Dinigeer Yilamujiang is in fact just the pinyin romanization of her Chinese characters (迪妮格尔·衣拉木江), which phonetically approximate her Uyghur name, which is Dilnigar Ilhamjan (دىلنىگار ئىلھامجان).
Belonging to a Nation
To be fair, the latinized pinyin system is the script into which all non-Chinese language names are being converted into, including those of foreigners. US born and ethnically Caucasian ice hockey player Jeremy Smith, for instance, is being listed as Jieruimi Shimisi in Chinese pinyin – and carries this name even on his jersey. Smith is one of several players drafted into the Chinese ice hockey team, despite neither having been born and raised in China, nor being of Chinese ethnicity. Granted, these are not preconditions to obtain a country’s citizenship elsewhere either (neither is language capability, necessarily), and one could argue that China is simply following international practices of granting citizenship to top athletes. Yet, in the case of China this does stand out for several reasons: not only does China not recognize dual citizenship (but the ice hockey players apparently had both), but even more importantly, the country is not (neither empirically, nor in its self-understanding) an immigration country, like the United States or Germany. Large parts of Chinese society still essentialize Chinese identity, equating it with at least belonging to one of China’s 56 recognized ethnicities (which were prominently present, wearing their traditional dress, during the Opening ceremony) – though in practice, “real” Chineseness is often de facto equated with belonging to the Han ethnicity or some of the assimilated minorities. Certainly, Jieruimi Shimisi will have a hard time being viewed as genuinely Chinese by pretty much anyone within China – a country which in early 2020 saw a backlash against the easing of even just residence status requirements for foreigners. The fact that laws on dual citizenship apparently only apply to ordinary Chinese, but not top athletes, might not make this a popular case for many Chinese with transnational backgrounds.
The case of the largely naturalized ice hockey team – which was not expected to do well, and duly lost all of their games – is not the most prominent example of athletes (most likely) holding dual citizenship and starting for China. Gu Ailing (Eileen Gu), a California born-and-raised athlete with an American father and a Chinese mother, won two gold and a silver medal for the People’s Republic. She had been part of the US team until recently, and her “switching sides” ended up directly helping Team China to “beat” Team USA in the medals’ table. Gu was caught between two different nationalisms – celebrated in China, where she became the face of the games, she was shunned as a traitor among many American (especially conservative) media. Stating that she belonged to both countries, but refusing to answer questions on her citizenship, she attempted to overcome the binary system of nationalities. Yet, while Western societies have started to accept the idea that people can belong to more than one ethnicity, and that ethnicity is not only based on bloodline but also on culture and upbringing, the idea of belonging to more than one nationality is still highly contentious. Even in countries where dual citizenship is possible (such as the US), one can only actively use one of them at one time. At the Olympics, one certainly can’t start for two nations at once (how about counting half-medals?). Thus, while many Asian Americans try all their lives to convince society that they are real Americans (presumably including Nathan Chen, the US figure skater who won the men’s competition, and was shunned as a “traitor” by Chinese netizens), Eileen Gu did the opposite – she actively embraced her Chinese heritage and was perceived to have turned her back on the US. Interesting in this context is also Zhu Yi, another Californian-born figure skater, who switched to China (and unlike the others apparently gave up her US citizenship). After rumors of favoritism (her father is an influential academic) and a poor performance on the ice, Chinese netizens did not hold back in their criticism (whereas US media appeared to be indifferent). Clearly, only the most prominent cases receive attention (there are in fact many more examples of athletes switching between various nations at these games alone, most of which have been widely ignored), and one key factor is success – if you leave us and fail, that’s ok, but don’t you dare defecting to the other side and beat us!
Still, even for someone who believes that, following Benedict Anderson, nations are “imagined communities” and thus social constructs rather than essentialized, organic entities, it is hard to imagine the Olympics without nations. One could postulate removing the flags next to athletes’ names, or not playing the national anthems. In fact, this is exactly what happened to Russia, which due to past doping related offenses had to start under the label ROC (no, not the Republic of China, the Russian Olympic Committee), while Tchaikovsky was played in lieu of an anthem. Still, everyone knew they were Russians – and even if all athletes of the world were to start under Olympic flags, chances are commentators and spectators would still look up their names on Wikipedia to find out their nationality. The truth is that while nationality is not the only factor in professional sports (popular athletes, i.e., in football, are indeed perceived for individual traits as well), most people unfamiliar with Olympic athletes will still mainly see them as representants of their countries. Even I, a German social scientist critical of patriotism (that combination does not sound that surprising when written down), would not have had much interest in watching some men bobsleigh down an ice canal, if I did not know their nationalities. I perceived myself quietly relaxing when the last German bob started its run – the previous one was already leading, so it would be a German gold medal regardless – why would I care which one of the two Germans won? Clearly, group-based inside/outside binaries are hard to overcome (and frankly, we also don’t fully want to overcome them, what would be the fun in international matches without nations?), yet these structures are also clearly problematic and lead to exclusionary tendencies. Most of us in the West thankfully no longer equate citizenship with bloodlines, we accept that citizenship is not tied to ethnicity – and yet we still would also snuff at national teams if they tried to trade players in the same frequency as professional football clubs do. If ethnicity is not a factor, we argue, then at least language skills, culture or – a minimum requirement – acceptance of our values has to be the binding force of our nation. If the latter is put into question – as it was in Germany with two national football players of Turkish descent visiting Turkish president Erdogan –, then even the political left (not just the conservatives) will see this as a problem. As such, Gu Ailing’s switch to the PRC (combined with her not commenting on any of the political talking points around China) likely evoked uneasy feelings in people of very different political leanings.
But there is more to say about nations at the Olympics. First of all, as the above example of the ROC demonstrates, the competing units at the Olympics are not actually congruent with UN recognized countries, but can be argued to follow a more pragmatic system. Behind those units are NOCs (National Olympic Committees), and this is the reason that some non-independent entities are allowed to participate – in our case most prominently Hong Kong and the Republic of China on Taiwan, which has been forced to run under the artificial name Chinese Taipei since the 1980s, to comply with the One-China principle. Promptly, a scandal in Taiwan followed when a Chinese Taipei athlete was photographed wearing a Team China jacket in practice, which she had borrowed from a Chinese friend – one wonders what had happened if she had borrowed a ROC jacket from a Russian.
What then, is left after these two weeks of Olympics? Only time will tell if any sustained interest in winter sports will develop in China. Only in hindsight will we know if these games were an outlier or the beginning of a trend. Chances are good that these might have been the last Covid-affected games. Yet it appears unlikely that China will open up any time soon – and it might even adopt the bubble approach to other international events (sporting events, trade fairs, etc.). With ideological differences between East and West reaching new levels of polarization again, questions regarding “loyalty” to certain nationalities will probably keep being asked, though maybe what we really need is a new debate on what citizenship means in a globalized world and within multi-ethnic countries.
In any case, the next event will of course be the Paralympics in March – unfortunately often just seen as an easily forgotten appendix to the Olympics (how about integrating their events into the main Olympics?). Yet, anyone who ever navigated a wheelchair through Beijing knows that the city could do well to take some inspiration from this event, which will likely go past almost unnoticed.
The above essay does not represent the opinion of mediastudies.asia — in fact, it often contradicts the opinion of MSA’s Editorial Board. We have nevertheless decided to publish it. Not only because we find Michael’s reflections on the question of nationality interesting, especially his ambivalent attitude. But above all because in this networked world we live in, there is no alternative to dialogue and listening to each other.