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Beijing 2022 — A dubious Winter Olympics

Engel Dagmar Kommentarbild App
Dagmar Engel
February 3, 2022

Little anticipation, fewer fans, scant political prominence, almost no freedom of movement and absolutely no snow — the only thing there's plenty of is criticism. DW's Dagmar Engel asks if the winter games have a future.

IOC President Thomas Bach alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing
Is the IOC scrapping the Olympic idea when it ignores rights abuses?Image: Andy Wong/dpa/picture alliance

One wonders if International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach feels sorry for himself — having to pose for photographers alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping as the strongman showers him with praise and accolades. Xi Jinping is responsible for grave human rights abuses — for the repression, internment and torture of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs; for putting Hong Kong's democracy in a stranglehold; and for blocking his own people's access to a free press and internet to ensure they never learn the truth. Still, there is nothing Thomas Bach can do other than repeat his mantra that the IOC is politically neutral. That the IOC has no mandate to criticize the human rights situation beyond the games. But can such arguments offer him comfort when he has to look himself in the mirror each night at his luxury Beijing hotel?

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has made no attempt to curb his enthusiasm when it comes to drawing the connection between sports and politics. As always, the Olympics are a wonderful opportunity to stage a propaganda show. And in the face of growing international criticism, it would seem they are Xi's last "soft power" tool. Thus, he gave no heed to the financial or environmental cost, creating a winter sports region from scratch where none had been prior to the games and none will be thereafter — because China simply isn't a winter sports nation.

Watch: Uyghurs demand Winter Olympics boycott

Millions of new customers?

At least it isn't yet. In its bid to host the games, Beijing boasted that 300 million Chinese would become winter sports enthusiasts by the time they started — a massive market. In mid-January, Xi proudly announced that things had gone even better than planned and that China now has 349 million winter sports enthusiasts. If those numbers are really true — it is impossible to check this supposed fact in China — it would be a boon to the flagging international ski industry, which is currently suffering the affects of climate change, like the fact that less snow is falling and that Western skiers and snowboarders are growing more concerned with sustainability. 

DW's Dagmar Engel
DW's Dagmar Engel

But it would be too shortsighted to think the financial boost a Winter Olympics might give the global ski industry would be reason to award the games to Beijing. Nor were the roughly $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) the games created for the IOC's coffers the reason Beijing got the nod. Sponsoring funds and TV broadcast rights can be had in other countries — democratic countries that respect human rights. 

The problem is, no such countries placed bids to host the games. Of the nine sites originally in the running to host the games this year, seven withdrew their bids — all seven were democratic, winter sports countries. Citizens there were given a say, and most found the price for hosting the games — which, unlike profits, is foisted on the community's taxpayers — too high. After that, only two hopeful autocracies remained: With Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing vying for the honors.

Do we even need a Winter Olympics?

So, if we wish to keep criticism of Beijing from becoming so much elevated small talk, we must ask ourselves a few fundamental questions. Do we — as nations, as fans, as winter sports enthusiasts and as active participants — still even want Winter Olympic Games? Do we still believe in the Olympic idea? In the idea of peaceful athletic competition among equals, with no discrimination? Also, couldn't the games be staged in less bombastic terms — for instance, by using existing winter sports infrastructure and venues instead of further destroying nature to build new ones? Can we skip the megalomaniacal show that the IOC seems to hold so dearly? Shouldn't the way revenue and expenses are distributed be revamped? Does the IOC need to be completely overhauled?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then Milan and Cortina d'Ampezzo have a chance to make things better in four years' time. Then we could celebrate the accomplishments of winter athletes and criticize China at the same time.

And that would leave only one last question: Where is Peng Shuai?  

This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton.

The figure on IOC's profits was corrected down in this translation on February 3.