In the shadow of a global pandemic, fragile global relationships and diplomatic boycotts, this edition could be one of the most controversial since the modern Olympics began in 1896.
Yet the spectacle of the Winter Games will equally demand attention. The Opening Ceremony will kick off on February 4 at the Beijing National Stadium – also referred to as the Bird’s Nest – a venue originally constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Almost 3,000 athletes from 91 nations will compete at 109 medal events across seven sports, which are scheduled to take place from February 2 to February 20.
From China’s teen hopefuls, who are among the favorites for gold, and the figure skating veterans who will also battling to top the podium, to a controversial layer of artificial snow blanketing Beijing’s ski slopes, here are five topics to know about Beijing 2022.
Curling, figure skating and snowboarding
Athletes will participate in 15 different disciplines across seven sports at the Beijing Games, including curling, figure skating, ice hockey and snowboarding. There will also be new events in bobsled, freestyle skiing, snowboarding, short track and ski jumping.
With its roots thought to be in the 16th century, curling is one of the most unique events at the Winter Games. It might be one of the Winter Olympics’ slower sports, but the tension, suspense and skill involved makes it an audience favorite.
Figure skating was held twice at the 1908 and 1920 Summer Games in London and Antwerp respectively, before it was transferred to the Winter program.
It is a sport that requires precision and consistency, exemplified by Russian Kamila Valieva. At just 15 years old, the world record holder, who will skate for the Russian Olympic Committee, is one of the contestants to beat at Beijing 2022.
China’s prodigies go for gold
Having claimed just one gold medal at the Winter Olympics in 2018, hosts China will look to redeem themselves using this year’s home advantage. They are pinning their hopes on their largest ever athlete delegation, with 176 competitors going for gold.
At Beijing 2022, China could win as many as six gold medals, according to data company Gracenote, which released its virtual medal table on Wednesday.
“Due to the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic, there is potential for the Beijing Winter Games to be more unpredictable than norm,’ said Gracenote in a statement.
“At the time of writing, Austrian ski jumper Sara Marita Kramer (originally forecast gold) is out of the Olympics because of a positive Covid test and has been removed from the forecast. Hungarian short track skater Shaoang Liu (forecast silver) is doubtful for the same reason.”
Chinese hope are pinned on freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who made her mark at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she earned gold in both big air and halfpipe, with an additional silver in slopestyle.
Nicknamed “Snow Princess” by her fans, the 18-year-old said that her mother and grandmother are “by far the two biggest influences in my life,” calling them “the definition of empowered women, to the max,” according to the Olympics website.
Su Yiming became the first ever Chinese snowboarder to make a World Cup podium in slopestyle or big air in December 2021 at Steamboat, Colorado. This year, the 17-year-old will hope to replicate his performance in both events.
Other Chinese frontrunners this year include freestyle skier and seven-time Olympic medalist Xu Mengtao, figure skating duo Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, and short track speed skater Wu Dajing, who won his country’s only gold medal at PyeongChang 2018.
Norway hopes to replicate PyeongChang success
Norway is the most successful country in the history of the Winter Olympics, with a total of 368 medals under its belt – including 132 gold medals, 125 silver medals and 111 bronze medals.
Gracenote is predicting Norway will top the medal table. And Norway’s predicted medal haul of 44 could include as many as 21 golds, which would be a record at the Winter Olympics, according to the data company.
Team Norway also topped the overall medal table at the Winter Games in 2018, earning 39 medals ahead of Germany, Canada and the United States.
Biathlete Johannes Thingnes Bø, already a three-time Olympic medalist, is a podium favorite for Beijing 2022. Having earned nine World Championship wins since the Winter Games in 2018, Bø names legendary biathlete and compatriot Emil Hegle Svendsen as one of his heroes, according to the Olympics website.
One of the country’s most fruitful events is cross-country skiing, where Johannes Høsflot Klæbo won three of Norway’s 14 gold medals at PyeongChang 2018. He told CNN Sport at the time, “It’s quite cool to be a part of it because everyone inspires everyone.”
‘It’s certainly a challenge’
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be the second Games to take place during the coronavirus pandemic, after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last summer – where there were 33 positive cases among the 11,300 athletes, according to the genomic sequencing data confirmed by the Government of Japan last December.
As such, tournament organizers have been strategizing in order to keep cases of Covid-19 to a minimum. They have extended the government’s zero-Covid strategy to the Olympics, creating a bubble that is effectively sealed off from the rest of Beijing.
Dubbing it a “closed loop system,” authorities have not disclosed how many workers will be inside alongside athletes, officials, the media and IOC members. However, measures include daily testing, mandatory face masks and temperature checks.
Athletes who are hoping to enter the closed loop safely are doing everything they can to avoid catching Covid-19, including Team GB skeleton racer Hannah Soar, who told CNN Sport in January: “It’s certainly a challenge and it just means that I can’t really live a normal life at the moment.
“I’ve jumped all of these hurdles over the past few years to get to this point and I’m just trying really hard to do all the right things now so that I can get to Beijing safely without Covid.”
Artificial snow will fall
The climate crisis is jeopardizing winter sports and creating precarious conditions for athletes to compete in, according to a recent report by Loughborough University’s Sport Ecology Group in the UK, and the environmental group Protect Our Winters.
This year’s Games will be the first to use nearly 100% artificial snow, operating about 300 snow cannons and 100 snow generators to coat the ski slopes.
While tournament organizers have said they will source water for the artificial snow from summer rainfall and mountain runoff, the research added that the climate crisis means there is less natural snowfall, and water available for artificial snow – threatening the future of winter sports.
Since the first Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France, 21 venues have been used for the Winter Olympics. However, researchers predict that just under half of those venues will have the suitable climate conditions and natural snowfall to host an event by 2050.