Individual triumphs, betrayal, oppression define Beijing 2022

BEIJING Maybe you didn’t watch. For Canada, the Beijing Olympics took place half a world away, often in the middle of the night, in a repressive nation’s COVID-proof cage. And at home, for the duration, Canada was facing nationwide eruptions of a different kind of illness.

There was a sad symmetry there. On the morning Ottawa native Isabelle Weidemann was handed the flag, Ottawa police were confronting the people who’d occupied her hometown for the three weeks she’s been here.

These Olympics were worth watching, though not just for the usual reasons. They were a difficult Games in a hard world.

The entire Olympics took place in what they called the closed loop. Truck drivers who delivered supplies wore full hazmat suits and never left their cabs as the truck was unloaded. In 2008, China used radical measures to clear smog from the sky. Here, with masks, vaccines and test-trace-isolate — and more than was necessary beyond that, like spraying disinfectant in hotel parking lots — there were no COVID-19 cases inside the loop by the end of the Games.

It was a lonely success in every way. Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris called it “sports prison,” and more or less everybody nodded along. The Games slogan was “Together for a Shared Future,” and we sure were together. Beijing 2022 was a city within a city defined by bad food, few ways to congregate and the importation of scattered, largely silent fans.

For all the well-documented failures of the Olympics, they truly are about the human spirit: in competition, in sacrifice, in victory or defeat, in togetherness. They evince joy. There was not much joy here.

The mascot Bing Dwen Dwen was a sensation; you have never seen so many people hunting for a symbol of dissent-crushing autocracy wrapped in a plump, smiling, dead-eyed panda suit. The joy of athletes was earned; it was hard to even get here. Canada’s 26 total medals were behind only Norway, Germany and the Russian Olympic Committee and, bronze medals or not, Canadian athletes did themselves proud here. Canada’s women’s hockey team was the epitome of joy. To them, it meant everything.

But athletes had to compromise, too. I believe the only English-language athlete to actually speak out on China and human rights here was American-turned Brit Gus Kenworthy, though some, such as Swedish skating star Nils van der Poel, criticized China’s human rights record when they got home. Athletes had been told not to speak out because of China’s intolerance for dissent. Apparently they listened.

Meanwhile, China sent messages about its goal of conquering Taiwan and its treatment of the Uyghur minority in western China in the opening ceremony, and again in the final Beijing Organizing Committee joint press briefing. The questions from Chinese media were a glimpse into a world where uncomfortable truth does not exist. They asked about things like the significance of the colour red in China’s lantern festival.

A friend and I were speaking to a young Chinese woman who worked in our hotel. Like so many Chinese people inside the loop, she was bright and friendly; she was studying hotel management at university. At one point I wrote into my translation app, “I am not sure your government likes journalists.” And she wrote back, “Still friendly. Journalists do not tell the truth about the country.”

It was like seeing … not the future, but a future. As I watched Canadian journalists get threatened and abused by protesters back home, my darkest thought was this: At least we have journalists.

It was a place for dark thoughts.

The Kamila Valieva scandal overshadowed the entire Games. It was the result of years of the International Olympic Committee downplaying Russian doping and years of an abusive system in an often abusive sport, and it all collided with a 15-year-old girl crushed like a rose petal in front of the world.

Former Olympian Peng Shuai was presented, displayed and disappeared on the same day China found a new sporting hero in American-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu, when she won the first of her two gold medals. It was one of the most chilling things I have ever seen.

To the IOC, it must have been the cost of doing business. A record half-billion people watched the opening ceremony, and the Games-long Chinese TV audience was slated to match or exceed the global audience for Pyeongchang four years ago. The rules here are different. The scale, too.

But at ground level, limitations remained. Venues for bobsled and alpine were borderline inaccessible in an Olympic context; the loop was a clunky thing, maximal repression without apparent benefit. That all seems small. But in 2008, China rigorously executed a successful Games logistically while there was a strange undercurrent of incompetence, or perhaps indifference, at work here. It’s hard to say why. But it felt significant, in its way.

It was something to ponder as the daily media bus drove first past the Museum of Tibetan Culture and later the Museum of the Communist Party of China, looming like a Roman-style monolith. When the Games were here in 2008, there were Tibet-based protests in some parts of Beijing. Not this time.

It was a sad, fractious Olympics. The best question of the Games, actually, may have been asked by a Chinese journalist from Xinhua, China’s official media-slash-propaganda-slash-censorship entity. Xinhua has more foreign correspondents than any media organization on Earth.

“The modern Olympics motto ‘Together’ has been added (to ‘Higher, Faster, Stronger’). The slogan for Beijing 2022 is ‘Together for a Shared Future,’” he said. “We see there are a lot of disputes going on in the world. Can we really move towards a shared future?” It was surprisingly profound.

The Olympics will now decamp for largely western democracies for a while — though democracy in Los Angeles in 2028 isn’t a lock — and will try to leave China behind. But the Olympics will return one day, because at the highest level of international sport it’s not really about the sports, is it?

These Games were triumphs of the individual, as they always are. The human spirit was here. They were about controlling COVID.

They were also about the betrayal and ruin of a Russian child, and China bluntly imposing its will, and a version of the world where journalism loses the war. We should be chilled by all that, and bear witness. The athletes delivered, the media tried. And everyone is glad this is over.

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