“If the mass cluster transmission happens, it will impact the Games and the schedule for sure,” Beijing Olympics official Huang Chun told reporters on Tuesday. “The worst scenario, if it happens, is independent of man’s will, so we leave our options open.”
Athletes now on their way to the Olympics are not only racing against their competitors but the ever-greater risk of infection.
China’s strict COVID-19 policies mean anyone who gets infected between now and the Games could miss them altogether.
Athletes who have tested positive at home have to clear two PCR tests at least 24 hours apart eight days before leaving for China and a further two 96 hours before getting on a plane. If they test positive when they land, they are sent to a 25-square-metre room at a government isolation facility until they test negative on two consecutive days, a process that could take days or weeks.
The virus is already surging through teams that are qualifying. More than a dozen members of Canada’s bobsleigh squad tested positive on December 29, after cases in the Canadian curling and US ski teams. More are bound to follow.
Those travelling to Beijing face a nervous three weeks once they clear the hurdles to get into the country. The government has already shown how seriously it will treat any potential risk of infection.
In November, Polish luger Mateusz Sochowicz hit a barrier while training in Beijing and fractured his leg. He was told he would not be able to fly out on a commercial flight and would have to catch a cargo plane home because he had not spent 21 days in the quarantine zone. This week Beijing’s traffic management authority said residents should not stop to help if they saw a car crash involving Olympic participants in specially designated cars, warning approaching the visitors could compromise the bubble.
Tokyo showed that it is possible to put on an Olympics without turning it into a superspreader event, but unlike Tokyo, COVID is not the only threat to China pulling off the multibillion-dollar public relations feat that the modern Olympics have become.
Concerns about the country’s human rights record have risen sharply since 2008 when it hosted the Summer Games. A period of relative openness has given way to a more brutal rule under President Xi Jinping, which has sent up to 1 million Uighurs to re-education camps, eliminated liberal democracy in Hong Kong and jailed dissidents across the mainland.
In response, the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom said they would join a diplomatic boycott and not send any official representation to these Games.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, urged governments to maintain their pressure. “President Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ has not only entrenched him as China’s leader but also entrenched oppression across China,” she said at the release of Human Rights Watch’s annual report on Thursday.
For locals, speaking out has never been riskier. In January last year, former journalist Zhang Jialong was sentenced by a court in Guizhou province to 1½ years in prison for criticising the government’s censorship regime. In August, a Beijing court sentenced activists Chen Mei and Cai Wei to 15 months in prison after convicting them of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for archiving censored online articles and social media posts about the pandemic.
The Chinese Communist Party describes criticism of its policies as part of a Western conspiracy against China, but Heather Dichter, an Olympic researcher and professor of sports history at De Montfort University, says it would have been harder for China to win another Olympics under the tighter human rights restrictions established by the International Olympic Committee for every Games from Paris in 2024.
“That does make things more challenging for Beijing,” she says. “Perhaps we are seeing the shift from the IOC, realising that maybe they shouldn’t do the allocations the way they’ve done them in the past.”
Ultimately, it may not be the Uighurs, Tibetans or Hongkongers that create the biggest public human rights issue for Beijing. Instead, Chinese Olympian Peng Shuai, has both the profile and the athletic connections to become a totemic human rights figure at these Games.
The former world tennis doubles no.1 went public with allegations of sexual assault against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli in November. The IOC has contacted her since, but no independent government body, tennis association or media outlet has spoken to the star, leaving her safety and position unresolved. All mention of her name and the allegations against Zhang have been scrubbed from the internet in China.
The 2022 Olympics will be only the second Games where athletes will be able to protest on the field of play or in press conferences under updated rules from the IOC that began applying in Tokyo. It leaves Beijing facing the prospect of protests over the treatment of one of its own at its showpiece event.
“I think it will be difficult for China to hide some of those protests and obviously the only spectators now are going to be from China and not international spectators,” says Richter.
“The reality is more people from China will actually be able to see those protests happen in person at the venue.
“And the rest of the world is going to want to see any athlete actually protesting and the media is going to be focused on that.”
Sponsors are also keeping their distance. Less than three weeks out from the start of the Games, the websites of Coca-Cola, Allianz and Samsung make little mention of the Olympics, with no rings on their international websites or products tied to the Games, except in China. They paid up to $US100 million ($137 million) each to badge their products with Olympic memorabilia over four years, but now appear to be playing dead.
“That’s something to pay attention to in the next few weeks,” says Richter. “The issue of China being the host is really concerning to some of them. They’re now having to weigh those balances between how they market within China and how they’re promoting themselves externally.
“I think this is, in some ways, damaging to China’s international position as well.”
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