Beijing Olympics lets China prove to world it’s in control

BEIJING We passed a man in the hazmat suit as he held a fishing net on the side of the airport road, and that was the only inexplicable note. The Beijing Olympics are the Genocide Games, the second pandemic Games, the first second Games of a Chinese century, and the most locked-down Olympics in history. It makes sense, all of it. All of it can be explained.

There has never been an Olympics this captive. Omicron is the sternest test for China’s zero-COVID philosophy, and after two years of reporting almost no cases neighbourhoods in Beijing have again been locked down in the brutalist Chinese fashion, with residents forbidden to leave their houses. Beijing’s Capital Airport, one of the busiest in the world, is a ghost airport handling half-empty flights of Games-associated travellers: International Olympic Committee in-house broadcast crews, the smaller-than-usual army of NBC employees, officials and judges, the athletes from countries that couldn’t afford to charter their own plane, and the motley general media, all of whom take pictures of the airport staff in hazmat suits. No other planes seem to be landing but those.

The daily COVID tests are enthusiastic — the daily throat swab makes just about everybody gag. Journalists and athletes alike are using VPNs on their burner phones or laptops to evade the Great Firewall, and hacking by Chinese security services is assumed. When Canadian government officials get briefed on visits to China, they are told, among other things, that if you log into any account on a Chinese wireless system here, the Chinese government will have access to that account forever.

It was an incredibly difficult Games to reach, for athletes, media and officials alike. Several athletes have already tested positive, and their Games are over. The Olympics will be entirely contained in the already infamous closed loop, with fences outside every hotel and venue. There are already whispers of an unlucky TV staffer who wandered past a fence and was sent home within hours. We’re all at the mercy of opaque daily testing, with quarantine hanging in the balance. Want to do a story on China’s persecution of the Uyghers? This is a hard place to do it, by design.

So many roads led here. Beijing defeated Toronto for the 2008 Games because the allure of a rising superpower overrode any concern over human rights. (The IOC still does not include human rights as a criteria for awarding Games bids.) One of the IOC’s many dirty secrets is that competent autocracy makes for an efficient, if soulless, Olympics and 2008 was that. China displaced some 1.5 million people to build the Olympic park. It took half the cars off the road every day and shut down industrial production to reduce the smog. It arrested the protesters it invited to designated safe protest zones. And it spent what would now be some $52 billion, once you account for inflation.

It was almost comically efficient. One afternoon, reporters were returning after covering the triathlon at the Ming’s Tombs Reservoir when our bus broke down; for 15 minutes, we stood on the side of the mountain road. Every bus to that point had been methodical, and drove the speed limit in dedicated Olympic lanes, and never missed a schedule. A replacement bus pulled up, slammed the door behind us, and the driver sped down the mountain all the way to the city, honking his horn and going about 30 kilometres an hour over the speed limit. Schedules, after all, had to be maintained. From the moment Yao Ming towered over the rest of the world in the opening ceremony, it was a nationalist statement on a global stage.

Russia noticed. It had spent years hosting smaller international events which tended to return a profit to the federations who ran them. It had wooed or installed people in various international sport federations — biathlon became a favourite.

Russia was awarded the Sochi Games in 2007, and went big. Russia spent over $50 billion, in line with China’s 2008 Olympics. That chased off potential bidders in Norway, Sweden, Austria and more. Ukraine might have bid, but Russia invaded and eight years later is considering doing it again. There were only two bidders left for 2022. The other was Kazakhstan.

And so the road led here. The IOC had said the 2008 Games would help move China further toward human rights — ping-pong and modern pentathlon diplomacy, as it were — but had to know better. Fourteen years later the IOC is still helping to cover up China’s muzzling of tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a top organizing committee official of sexual assault. The athletes are being advised by Human Rights Watch not to talk about Uyghers or Hong Kong or Tibet or Taiwan, because who knows what would happen if they did?

It all makes a certain kind of sense. The IOC sold athletes for money and prestige until the process fell apart, and have since reshaped the bidding process so it doesn’t happen again, at least for a while. And at the end of a generation of businesses trying to tap into the Chinese market, after Hong Kong’s democracy got swallowed, after hostage diplomacy over a cellphone executive, after endless attempts to bully the world, China gets three weeks to prove to everyone that China, above all, is in control.

And for now, it seems like it could work.

The media is contained. The athletes have been told to do nothing but ennoble the Games. The virus may even be kept out, though every day officials roll off the steady number of daily infections — 32 Wednesday, 17 of which were inside the loop — and the whole thing is as sterile as it could possibly be. The buses will likely run on time, and China put a military commander who was part of a border clash that killed 20 Indian troops two years ago in the torch relay. This is China’s Olympics, almost perfectly.

So why did someone tell an Olympic worker to stand on the side of the road in his hazmat suit in the dark next to a ghost airport holding a fishing net on a pole? What could there be to catch? Wild dogs? Feral hogs? There must have been a reason for it, the way there is for everything else.

Or maybe it’s the same reason that China got these Games despite everything, again. Because it could.

Read more about: