On February 1, the torch relay of the Beijing Winter Olympics kicked off. Lasting a mere three days, the relay was shortened due to COVID-19.
The global spotlight this week shifts to Beijing for the second Olympics to be held during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with it plenty of comparisons about last year’s Tokyo Games and the 2022 Winter Games, too.
It’s helpful therefore to look at a selection of different viewpoints surrounding the Olympics Games held in these very unique circumstances.
Looking Back at Tokyo 2020
The pandemic forced the unprecedented postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year, and there was divided opinion on holding the Summer Games amidst the global crisis.
Outspoken critics of holding the Tokyo Games during the pandemic predicted the worst-case scenarios within the Olympic Village and surrounding areas. Fears of the Olympics transforming into a super-spreader event were telegraphed far and wide, but the reality on the ground in the Japanese capital proved to be quite different.
As of August 8, the final day of the 2021 Games, event organizers said 430 people linked to the Tokyo Games, including volunteer personnel, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Fear produced panic and anxiety in people’s minds, but the overall success of the second Olympics to be held in Tokyo (and the first since 1964) was the overwhelming view held by people around the world.
What’s more, the Tokyo Games brought enjoyment and joy to people in a period with a daily barrage of COVID-19-fueled news, much of it depressing and negative. Daily video highlights and images of athletes celebrating their medal-winning feats in Japan became a unifying, feel-good activity for people in all corners of the globe.
Headlines around the world applauded the athletes' feats. The Financial Times hosted an opinion piece which had the eloquent headline “The Olympics have been a balm for the souls battered by the pandemic.” US President Joe Biden publicly commended the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for a “successful Olympics.”
And the success was tangible in the world's attention. More than 3 billion people tuned in to watch the Tokyo Olympics, according to published reports.
The decision to hold the Olympic Games without spectators at the overwhelming majority of competitions in Tokyo and elsewhere last year was a decision designed to deal with concerns about the spread of COVID-19. It’s a policy that isn’t universally-enforced ー far from it, in fact.
The NFL’s NFC Championship Game (Los Angeles Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers), held on Sunday, January 30, in Inglewood, California, had a packed house of more than 73,000 fans. On the other hand, Australian Open venues were capped at 50% for the 2022 Grand Slam tennis event that concluded on the same weekend.
Even without crowds at the 2021 Olympics, Japan’s record-breaking medal haul (58 medals in total, including 27 golds), energized the host nation. People here were entranced by the Japanese Olympians’ success, which included medals in 20 of the 33 sports on the Tokyo 2020 competition menu.
Admiration for Japanese athletes and teams and the nation’s overall day-to-day management of COVID-19 protocols received positive marks from global leaders, including US President Joe Biden and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, among others.
China’s Olympic Issues and Well-Documented Problems
While Japan brandished its reputation for hosting global events within its borders with 2021’s Olympics and Paralympics, China’s image on the world stage during the Xi Jinping era is filled with negative views.
There are ongoing concerns about China’s suppression of the press, human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and military aggression in the Asia Pacific region.
And persistent questions linked to these problems are only magnified by the fact that China was awarded the 2022 Winter Games despite all of its problems, treatment of its citizens, minorities in Tibet.
The imposition of the “National Security Law” from June 1, 2020, has led to an erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong at the hands of China. In what used to be a mecca for civil liberties in Asia, the new law has already led to arrests of activists, and shutting down of media outlets such as the Apple Daily in June 2021.
The political and military pressure on Taiwan is leading experts to contemplate whether China will launch a full-on invasion of Taiwan.
As a result, several countries, including the US and Japan, have declared a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing. On February 1, Japan adopted a resolution in the lower house of the National Diet, citing concern over breach of freedom of religion and forced incarcerations in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, among others.
Then there is the continued impact of the pandemic. While Japan appeared transparent in reporting daily COVID-19 cases throughout the Tokyo Games, China’s trustworthiness in divulging true numbers of COVID-19 cases, clusters and, especially, deaths is a cause for real concern.
For months, for example, there were zero reported cases in Beijing, a city with a population of more than 20 million.
Will a few positive COVID-19 tests during the Games lead to panic and a disruption in events or a partial lockdown inside or outside of the Olympic hub?
Can the Omicron variant of the virus, a more transmissible variant of COVID-19 than the Delta variant, be properly dealt with in close quarters with all of the movement of people within Olympic venues?
The news already trickling from the Olympics Village suggests otherwise. The games haven’t even started yet, and already as of February 3 there were over nearly 200 people that had been diagnosed with the Omicron variant.
The organizers of the Games have implemented a “closed-loop” system, designed to prevent media, athletes and other personnel from coming into contact with the general public. Yet some are already questioning how a closed system can work, especially when it spans several hundreds of kilometers.
Quite apart from the bubble system, the host country appears to be less well equipped with its indigenous vaccine than the situation Japan faced in the summer of 2021. Studies have shown that China’s homemade COVID-19 vaccines offer little to no protection against Omicron.
Taiwan’s team, until late January, was set to skip the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, citing COVID-19 concerns. However, on February 1 it was announced athletes will be participating.
As the whole world is watching, let the Games begin.
Authors: Ed Odeven and Arielle Busetto