Feb 21, 2022 - Sports

Beijing avoided Olympics disaster

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Beijing mostly got what it wanted from the Winter Olympics — a smooth Games without a major COVID outbreak. But political and human rights controversies were never far from the surface.

Why it matters: The Chinese government has poured billions of dollars into new infrastructure, facilities and COVID testing for the Winter Olympics, hoping the investment would pay off with a boost to China's international image.

The big picture: The Games went smoothly for the most part, with gorgeous winter backdrops and stars like Eileen Gu winning both medals and social media love.

  • Yes, but: All the things that made the Beijing Games controversial in the first place continued to bubble up throughout the competition, creating an atmosphere of underlying tension.

The opening ceremony featured a Uyghur cross-country skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, as torchbearer. She was the only Uyghur on Team China this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

  • After Yilamujiang finished 43rd among 65 athletes, she avoided reporters on her way out.
  • The Chinese government is perpetrating a genocide against Uyghurs in China's northwest. Uyghurs abroad compared the Chinese government's showcasing of Yilamujiang to Nazi Germany's prominent display of a German Jew in the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Details: Anti-China sentiment in South Korea spiked during the Games, amid accusations of biased judging in the short-track speed skating competition.

  • Networks of bots and influencers on Western social media platforms pushed out glowing narratives about the Olympics to audiences outside China, the New York Times found.
  • The International Olympic Committee issued a rare rebuke of a Chinese Olympic official after a Feb. 17 press conference in which the official broke with political neutrality by stating: "Taiwan is an indivisible part of China."

Many athletes felt afraid to publicly criticize China's human rights record before heading to Beijing, a fear fanned by Chinese authorities who warned international athletes of "punishment."

  • But Nils van der Poel, a 25-year-old Swedish speedskater who won two gold medals, spoke freely after he returned home to Sweden.
  • The Olympics is "a fantastic sporting event where you unite the world and nations meet," he said. "But so did Hitler before invading Poland, and so did Russia before invading Ukraine."
  • “I think it is extremely irresponsible to give it to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime is doing," he said.
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