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The Olympic torch to be lit Friday in Beijing is supposed to kick off a celebration of athletics. But this year’s winter competition is setting world records in awkward.
Fears of invasion. One country in the competition, Russia, may invade another, Ukraine. The US alleged Thursday that Russia has been preparing to “fabricate a pretext for an invasion” of Ukraine, this time using a “graphic” video that would depict a fake attack against Russia.
ROC, not Russia. Vladimir Putin’s country is still under sanction for serially doping its athletes, so Russians at the Games are competing under the Olympic flag and the acronym ROC. Ukrainian athletes have been warned to steer clear of their ROC rivals.
“We are clearly not friends with the Russian athletes,” the Ukrainian bobsledder Lydia Gunko told CNN. “We have to train and perform with them but because their country wants to violate our integrity, we cannot have easy contact with them.”
Accusations of genocide. The human rights abuses of the host, China, against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups hang over the Games. The United States, along with international rights groups, has previously accused China of a “systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs.”
Political prisoners. The harsh treatment of Uyghurs is not the only criticism of China on human rights. The journalist Mark Clifford, former editor in chief of the South China Morning Post, writes for CNN Opinion that China should head off some criticism and release high-profile Hong Kong political prisoners.
Threats to punish foreign athletes. Don’t look for any of this controversy to pierce the Games. Athletes are barred from political statement by the Olympic Charter.
China has gone further and threatened to punish even foreign athletes.
“Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang Shu, deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, said during a January news conference, according to The Washington Post.
Adding context. NBC, which pays handsomely to broadcast the Olympics, says it will provide “geopolitical context” during its broadcasts but keep the focus on the athletes.
The network will keep its broadcasting teams in Stamford, Connecticut, as a result of pandemic precautions.
Quiet because of Covid-19. Banned from criticizing the host country, athletes are also encouraged not to cheer (they can clap) because of the pandemic.
Diplomatic boycott. Leaders of major democracies, led by the US, are boycotting the Games over human rights.
Other countries will skip due to the worldwide pandemic.
Array of autocrats. Read this report from CNN’s Simone McCarthy about which leaders will now oversee the lighting of the Olympic torch:
Of the just over 20 presidents, prime ministers, heads of state and royalty set to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday, around half of those dignitaries hail from authoritarian countries with several others listed as “hybrid regimes,” as classified by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2020.
Attendance by Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and others, writes McCarthy, “will send out an image not just of China’s increasing distance from the West, but of an emerging bloc of Beijing-friendly authoritarian leaders.”
Authoritarian summit. In a separate story about the growing relationship between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, McCarthy notes the two are expected to hold a summit alongside the opening ceremonies. She writes:
The question now being asked by many in the West is whether these Olympics will see a replay of what happened during the last time Beijing hosted an Olympics, when Russia invaded a different former Soviet state, Georgia. And as tensions continue to build on the Ukraine border all eyes will be on Putin.
Closed loop. The autocrats are welcome, but the pandemic and China’s strict “zero-Covid” efforts mean few others are – except the athletes.
CNN’s David Culver and Selina Wang did a video report on life in a series of bubbles at the Olympics. Athletes and staff are secluded in their hotels and sporting venues, behind literal walls and unable to walk the city. There are daily Covid-19 tests for everyone in the bubble. Wang shows how robots serve food and mix cocktails at the media center.
Beijing natives working at the Games must separate themselves from the rest of the city for weeks.
No spectators. There will be no fans, according to CNN’s Coy Wire, whose own video report from inside the bubble shows athletes in street wear walking amid Chinese workers in full hazmat suits.
Covid-19 anxiety. CNN Sports talked to the US mogul skier Hannah Soar about how, in addition to training, athletes are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting Covid-19, since a positive test at the last moment could end their Olympic dreams.
“It’s super stressful. I didn’t know that I really struggled with anxiety, to be totally honest, until the past couple of months,” Soar said.
Meanwhile, the FBI has encouraged US athletes to take only burner phones to Beijing, citing cybersecurity concerns.
Isolation. The Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans issued an urgent plea via Instagram to be released from a Chinese government facility. It was only after intervention by the International Olympic Committee, she said, that she was allowed back into an isolation area in the Olympic Village late Wednesday.
The closed-loop system has already identified more than 100 positive Covid-19 cases in athletes and team officials.
Moving mountains. As the world grapples with climate change, China is bragging that the Games will be powered by clean and renewable energy.
Culver filed a separate video report about how the country had moved a critical nature reserve in order to carve the ski venue into hills near Beijing, and how it will create snow that would not normally exist. It’s all evidence of what’s required of countries by the Olympic Committee and the lengths that hosts will go.
For all the problems, it’s still the Olympics – and there’s a thrill of tuning in to watch athletes who compete for the sake of competition in sports that are often not widely followed. It will just require some amount of compartmentalization to separate the worldwide pandemic, the feared Ukraine invasion and the noted human rights abuses of the host country from the efforts of the individual athletes.
And for the Games themselves, here are some key links:
- CNN’s “Aiming for Gold” Olympics page.
- How to watch the Olympics in the US and around the world.
- 25 athletes to watch.
- Iconic moments from Winter Olympics history.
- What you need to know ahead of Beijing 2022.
- Teen prodigies, legends of the ice and artificial snow, but Covid likely to make Beijing ‘unpredictable.’