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Beijing 2022: The Naïve Utopia of Apolitical Olympic Games

By Amédée Hirt

Last Sunday February 20th, the 24th Winter Olympic Games in Beijing were officially closed by the IOC president, Thomas Bach, under the watchful eye of Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China. Two weeks of intense sports competition, uniting athletes from the whole planet, came at their end. Despite the pandemic, the Games happened, which is, on its own, a success for the IOC and the Chinese government, at the expense of the atmosphere around the competitions, colder than ever without the public.

We, Swiss people, are very satisfied. Some of our fellow citizens showed once again that we are the best at alpine skiing. Norwegians came first in overall medals rankings, and have proven to be the best in biathlon and cross-country skiing. Dutch people won gold  in speed skating, Germans in bobsleigh, Russians in figure skating, and Chinese in freestyle skiing. Inspiring stories happened on and off the podiums. We could witness the struggles of the Brazilian team and the joy of the Jamaicans in the bobsleigh competition. We saw the Swiss Marco Odermatt, currently first in the Alpine Skiing World Cup this season and giant slalom’s Olympic champion, exchange gifts with Andorran and Saudi skiers and trying unsuccessfully to get a hand on a jacket of the Haitian delegation. We saw tears and hugs on the podium of women’s freestyle skiing, showing the respect athletes have for each other. That’s for the exotic and the romantic side of the Olympic Games.

All in all, a true Olympic dream following the well-thought messages of the Olympic charter: “faster, higher, stronger – together”, but also the second fundamental principle of Olympism: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”1

Let’s try to take a step back from the joy of podiums and wake up from this dream.

Long live the Olympic Truce…

Since the games were attributed to China in 2015, many voices were raised to protest these Olympics. These games were sold as “green” but saw the use of millions of cubic meters of water to create artificial snow for the ski competitions. Hectares of forests and natural reserves were destroyed to make room for olympic infrastructures. The ecological footprint of major sport competitions is a well-known issue and Beijing 2022 was no exception. 

Critics also targeted the human rights violations in Xinjang (see our article about the Uyghurs and the Olympic games) and in Tibet. During the games, not much happened about that. We could see diplomatic boycotts by the USA and their partners and an Uyghur athlete lighting up the Olympic flame in the opening ceremony, under the friendly looks of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. The IOC, following its charter, called for apolitical games. It meant no politics on the podiums, on the field of sport competitions, and on Olympic sites. At first glance, the Olympic charter was respected, with one exception : a Ukrainian skeleton racer raised a “no war in Ukraine” paper sign. He was gently asked to abstain from showing his opinions on sport fields by the IOC.2

As this article is written, on the 24th of February, Russia is attacking Ukraine, in violation of International Law. Ironically, there is an old tradition accompanying the Olympic Games. The Olympic Truce is called by the UN in a resolution of the General Assembly with every OG since 1993, in memory of the antique truce called (and respected) during the ancient Greek Olympics. This truce is always called for the duration of the games (both Olympic and Paralympic), plus 7 days before and after the opening and closing ceremonies. In 2014, the Sochi Olympic Games in Russia closed on the 23rd of February. On the 26th (before the Paralympic started) the operations resulting in the annexing of Crimea by Russia started. In 2022, 4 days after the closing ceremony of Beijing 2022, the break week between the Olympic and the Paralympic Games, Russian armed forces entered Ukraine.

Since then, the IOC has condemned Russian actions in Ukraine, considering it as a “breach of [the] Olympic Truce”, unanimously accepted by the 193 members of the UN General Assembly, in December 2021.3

A competition between nations

The argument that Olympic games should be apolitical has never really held water. Political aspects infused the OGs since their very first edition. It has always been a competition between nations. What one remembers after the Olympic games is the medal table and which country got the most. In this regard, the Olympic games are a show of national pride, national soft-power, and national strength.

The Beijing 2022 Olympics were no different. Moreover, as these are the Winter Olympics, the medal table shows another interesting point. Only 29 countries got medals. Among them China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada, (and the Russian Olympic Committee) are the only non-European. Since the first Winter edition, white athletes from the Global North have always dominated. Obviously winter sports tradition is stronger in these countries. Still, it is hard to see the Winter Olympics as a true universal competition and something else than [reinforcing] Western cultural hegemony and white privilege.”4

Beijing 2022 are the third Winter Olympics in a row outside the traditional winter sport area. It shows the will of the IOC to export the Winter Olympics in countries without a strong winter sports tradition. If China (and before South Korea and Russia) are willing to organize such games, it appears as a way to join the club of the wealthy capitalist North and “a useful political strategy […] to express their desire to be recognized as emerging major powers and to impress international audiences by showing off their cultural prominence.”5

To do so, and win medals, the goal for Chinese authorities has been to find athletes to compete and win in the Winter Olympics. Chinese athletes were already winning medals in speed skating and aerial skiing (which is closer to gymnastics than to skiing), but not much in other sports. Foreign trainers were hired to “create” new winter athletes. Ice hockey is, in that regard, peculiar. Fearing a non-participation due to a too low level, not only the trainer, but also the players were “hired”. All 25 selected play in the same club, the HC Red Star Kunlun. This team, based in Beijing, has been specially created after China was chosen to host the Olympics, and evolves in the KHL Championship, the second-best championship after the NHL. Most players of the Chinese hockey team were binational persons, or people of Chinese ancestry, playing in North America. Four  were offered the opportunity to play for China in the Olympics, without prior ties with China. A striking example is the one from Jack Chelios, the son of the US Ice hockey legend Chris Chelios. Today, Jack changed his name to Jieke Kailiaosi, and plays for the Chinese Olympic Ice Hockey team.6

On the sport side, Gu Ailing (more known as Eileen Gu) was the real star of these Games for China. The freestyle champion won three medals in three competitions in women’s freestyle skiing. The thing is that she is competing under Chinese citizenship (her mother’s) only since 2019, and no longer under her second citizenship, the American one. This change, especially in regard with the popularity of Gu, is seen as close to treachery by some US citizens. The wonderful athlete that she is often fades into the background at interview time and on her social medias. Only remains that she is the girl who chose to compete for China.

In the end, nothing new under the sun. Sports fans enjoyed the competition, and the IOC keeps believing in the illusion of the apolitical Olympics ideal. The truth is, the Games were, as usual, a huge propaganda show of national pride: the proof, once again, that Olympism principles are, mostly, nothing but a naïve utopia.

  1. International Olympic Committee, « Olympic Charter » (2021), 8, https://stillmed.olympics.com/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf.
  2. Karolos Grohmann, ‘Keep Games Free from Politics, Even If It’s a Peace Message-IOC’, Reuters, 13 February 2022, sec. Sports, https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/keep-games-free-politics-even-if-its-peace-message-ioc-2022-02-13/.
  3. Reuters, ‘IOC Condemns “breach of Olympic Truce” after Russia Invades Ukraine’, Reuters, 24 February 2022, sec. Sports, https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/ioc-condemns-breach-olympic-truce-after-russia-invades-ukraine-2022-02-24/.
  4. Jung Woo Lee, « Olympic Winter Games in Non-Western Cities: State, Sport and Cultural Diplomacy in Sochi 2014, PyeongChang 2018 and Beijing 2022 », The International Journal of the History of Sport 38, no 13‑14 (22 septembre 2021): 1494, https://doi.org/10.1080/09523367.2021.1973441.
  5. Lee, 1496.
  6. Martin Belam, ‘Reality Bites for China’s Ice Hockey Ringers on Winter Olympic Debut’, The Guardian, 10 February 2022, sec. Sport, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/feb/10/reality-bites-for-chinas-ice-hockey-ringers-on-winter-olympic-debut; ‘The Chinese Men’s Hockey Team Has an International Cast.’, The New York Times, 11 February 2022, sec. Sports, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/10/sports/olympics/chinese-mens-hockey-team.html.

Figure 1: © Creative Commons

Figure 2 : © Creative Commons

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