The 2022 Winter Olympics are set to open in the Chinese capital of Beijing on Friday against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has overshadowed one of the world’s biggest sporting spectacles.
The opening ceremony is slated to begin at the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, on Friday at 8 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET). The Games will run for over two weeks with the closing ceremony on Feb. 20.
Beijing is hosting the event 14 years after the 2008 Summer Games — becoming the first city to stage both editions of the Olympics.
A total of 109 sets of medals are up for grabs across 15 different disciplines.
Here’s what to expect over the fortnight.
The Beijing Games come only six months after the completion the Tokyo Summer Olympics that were postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are the second Olympics to be held during the pandemic.
In the lead-up to the Games, China has doubled down on its “zero tolerance” COVID-19 policy, sealing off cities, shutting transport links and launching mass testing programs.
Residents of Beijing have had to undergo abrupt local lockdowns and increased testing.
Meanwhile, some experts are questioning how effective or realistic China’s approach is.
“I think this is more show than substance,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said “extreme measures” like these only work if there are no leaks — so enforcement would have to “brilliantly implemented.”
“This kind of strategy will likely have some effect, but I think the outcomes may still be disappointing,” he told Global News in an email.
There are limits to who can attend the Games, with no international spectators allowed. Tickets are only being distributed to “targeted” groups of people and not sold to the general public.
The movement of all athletes, Games personnel and media will be restricted within a “closed loop.”
“Within the closed loop, all Games participants will be subject to daily health monitoring and testing and will be allowed to move between permitted destinations (including Games venues, accommodation facilities, etc.) in dedicated Games transport,” the International Olympic Committee playbook for the Games states.
“For something as contagious as Omicron, I think it would be more effective to prevent infection in the first place, rather than preventing mobility once infection is detected,” said Furness.
Evans said the daily testing amid the spread of the Omicron variant is likely “less effective” given its transmissibility.
Masks are mandatory at the venues for everyone at all times, excluding athletes during training and competition.
Furness recommended the universal use of N95 masks, along with mandating indoor air quality standards to prevent infection.
While COVID-19 vaccines are not required at the Winter Olympics, anyone who is not fully vaccinated will need to quarantine for 21 days upon arrival.
Although cases in China have remained low compared to other countries in the region, both Furness and Evans said they will likely go up after the Games are over.
What’s new this year?
Seven events will make their Olympic debut in Beijing this year.
Women’s monobob, men’s and women’s freestyle skiing big air events, and mixed team events in short track, ski jumping, snowboard cross and freestyle skiing aerials have all been added to the Olympic schedule.
All the stadiums being used will be powered by green electricity, with the organizers aiming to host the first carbon-neutral Olympic Games.
Athletes to watch
Canada has sent 215 athletes who will vying for medals in 14 disciplines. This is Team Canada’s third largest Olympic delegation after PyeongChang 2018 — when 225 took part — and Sochi 2014, which saw 222 athletes represent the country.
Snowboarder Brooke D’Hondt is the youngest member of the team at 16, while 47-year-old female curler Jennifer Jones is the oldest.
This is the most gender-balanced Winter Olympics roster for Canada, with 106 women and 109 men competing.
Canada will be resting its medal hopes on freestyle skier Mikael Kingsbury of Quebec, who captured gold at PyeongChang 2018 and silver at Sochi 2014, as well as speedskating World Cup winner Ivanie Blondin of Ottawa.
Veteran short track speedskater and five-time medalist Charles Hamelin is making his fifth Olympic appearance. He is just one medal short of becoming Canada’s most decorated Winter Olympian.
That honour is currently held by retired long track speedskater Cindy Klassen.
Hamelin and women’s hockey captain Marie-Philip Poulin have been named Canada’s flag-bearers for Friday’s opening ceremony.
National Hockey League (NHL) stars will be missing in action after the league pulled out of the Beijing Olympics in December due to the disruption to its schedule caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has forced the postponement of more than 100 NHL games.
The U.S. will once again be looking to dominate the halfpipe snowboarding events, with Shaun White competing in his fifth Winter Games trying to close out his Olympic career with a fourth gold and Chloe Kim bidding for a successful defense of her Pyeongchang crown.
American skier Mikaela Shiffrin is looking to capture her third consecutive Olympic gold when she gets on the slopes in Beijing.
Meanwhile, Norway is expected to take home the most medals for the second straight Winter Games, according to Gracenote — a company that supplies sports analysis — which is projecting 45 medals for the country.
The Games will be played against the backdrop of political tensions as a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark have announced a diplomatic boycott due to concerns around China’s record of human rights abuses, particularly against the Uyghur ethnic minority.
A diplomatic boycott means government officials of those countries will not be attending the Games, while still allowing athletes to compete.
China has dismissed and downplayed the diplomatic boycott, saying the absence of dignitaries makes no difference to the Games.
But underneath the facade, the Chinese government must be concerned, said Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, a retired professor from the University of Toronto specializing in critiques of the Olympic industry.
“I imagine that there is some concern that this does not look good on the world stage to have the major western countries snubbing their noses at China,” she told Global News.
Freedom of speech
Athlete safety and surveillance will be under scrutiny following the recent mysterious disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
Peng, a three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon champion, was not seen publicly for over two weeks in November after she accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault. She later denied making those allegations.
“Athletes have been advised not to say anything to anybody that might be construed as political,” said Lenskyj, adding that the competing Olympians “should be quite apprehensive” about what they can and cannot say.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” That rule was was relaxed last year in Tokyo to allow for gestures on the field prior to the start of the competition if they are made without disruption and with respect for competitors.
Athletes also have the opportunity to express their views when speaking to the media during the Olympic Games, according to the updated IOC guidelines released before the Tokyo Games in July 2021.
Lenskyj said despite all the IOC protestations, athletes “do not have freedom of speech.”
She said those who may want to voice their concerns about any human rights violations “are constrained by concerns for their own safety” in China.
A Beijing 2022 official warned athletes in January that any behaviour by athletes that violates the Olympic spirit or Chinese rules could be subject to punishment.
Canada’s former ambassador to the country said China would face “consequences” if it retaliates against athletes from countries who have joined a diplomatic boycott against the Beijing Olympics
In a previous interview with Global News Guy Saint-Jacques said he is not concerned about the athletes’ safety due to the worldwide backlash he says China would face if it made such a move.
“I think there would be such a public, international outcry if they dare do anything to athletes from the countries that have officially boycotted” the Winter Games, he told Abigail Bimman on The West Block.
— with files from Reuters