IT IS BARELY 60 days until the ‘simple, safe and splendid’ Winter Olympic Games that President Xi Jinping promised eight months ago are due to open in Beijing under the totally apolitical slogan of ‘Together for a Shared Future’.
Despite the advent of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, neatly picking up on the alliteration, said today that he expected the Winter Olympics would be held ‘smoothly and on schedule’.
The games were always going to be staged in a bubble, with China’s borders effectively closed to international visitors as part of Covid-19 countermeasures. The restrictions were going to be eased only for athletes and team officials to participate in the games. From January 23, they must enter what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) calls ‘a closed-loop management system’ that confines them to Games-related venues and accommodation and only allows movement on a Games-dedicated transport system.
No foreign spectators were ever going to be allowed, only Chinese residents. The new variant may cause a reassessment of that. Yet, the country’s strict containment protocols will more likely permit it to fill the stands with vaccinated and patriotically cheering fans. They will provide the backdrop of spectators and atmosphere for the world’s TV cameras, through which most of the world watches Winter Olympics — and off whose broadcast rights revenues the IOC feasts royally.
Nor with domestic spectators only will there be any danger of crowd protests or #WhereIsPengShuai signs being waved for the cameras to linger on.
Beijing is managing to slowly let the air out of that particular balloon, even if the United States and other Western nations are still weighing a diplomatic boycott of the Games as a signal of its concern about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
A diplomatic boycott would mean the United States and other participating nations would not send delegations of government officials to attend the games. That will be an empty gesture if Omicron means no government delegations at all.
Update: The Women’s Tennis Association announced on December 1 that it was suspending tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2022 because of the Peng Shuai case.
THE COVID-19 OUTBREAK in Nanjing is the most serious since Wuhan and poses a challenge to the official narrative of overcoming the pandemic. Driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, it has spread to 13 cities across five provinces and Beijing.
Travel is again being restricted. Nanjing Lukou International Airport, an important air travel hub, will be closed for at least two weeks. Transiting passengers have taken the disease as far west as Sichuan and north as Liaoning.
The outbreak is being blamed on two cleaners of an inbound flight from Russia on July 10. State media say the cleaners did not follow hygiene protocols. Airport management has been rebuked for its lack of supervision and unprofessional management by Party disciplinary officials.
Other local outbreaks have been contained by the swift imposition of mass trace and testing, quarantines and extensive lockdowns. The same approach is being taken in Nanjing, where the city’s more than 9 million residents are all being tested.
Keeping a propaganda lid on this outbreak is made more difficult because of its extent. Both the response to the outbreak and the management of perceptions towards it are at risk of being outrun by the Delta variant.
Nonetheless, reported official figures show low levels of locally transmitted cases. State media portrays the Delta variant as a global phenomenon that China is battling to keep from entering the country.
A further threat to authorities is that the variant’s apparent ability to infect even those who have been vaccinated may throw doubt on the efficacy of Chinese vaccines and undermine its ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in third countries.
Some yet to be peer-reviewed research suggests a third booster shot of Sinovac six months after the initial vaccination may boost immunity.
Were it to be decided to do that nationally, could it be done in time to lift the ban on international travel ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February next year? That is increasingly looming as a tricky political as well as public health deadline for authorities.
The International Olympic Committee is taking the unprecedented step of retesting all 5,000 doping samples taken during the Beijing Olympics. It is looking for a new blood boosting drug recently detected during testing in cycling’s Tour de France.
The IOC disqualified six athletes for doping during the Beijing Games — Ukrainian heptathlete Lyudmila Blonska, Ukrainian weightlifter Igor Razoronov, Greek hurdler Fani Halkia, North Korean shooter Kim Jong Su, Spanish cyclist Isabel Moreno and Vietnamese gymnast Thi Ngan Thuong Do. Three other cases are still pending.
The Games are over. Beijing and the rest of China now faces the inevitable post-party hangover.
It was certainly quite a show both on and off the track. China got its craved for position atop the gold medals table, but the U.S. won the most medals overall, so both countries can claim to be No. 1 as they return to their more usual bilateral fare — trade, product safety, yuan revaluation, market access, human rights, &c.
Yet for all Project 119 on the one side, and Michael Phelps and the Redeem Team on the other, medal counts all come down to economics: “Statistical modeling shows that population size and income per head provide an almost faultless method for identifying medal totals”, writes U.K. academic Stefan Szymanski in “The Market for Olympic Gold Medals” (free abstract here). U.S. academics Gary Becker and Richard Posner summarize the arguments in “Determinants of the Olympic Success of Different Countries“. There is a good summary of the literature on the subject at Economic Logic. And an ingenious way of looking at the same factors through the opposite end of the telescope at YouCalc’s Real Olympic Medal Count.
So it makes sense that China’s increasing medal tally over the past four Olympics follows its growing wealth, while the U.S. is in relative decline. Its 11% share of all medals is its smallest going all the way back to 1952 when it won 17% of the medals.
Szymanski tells Forbes that he expects China’s medal total will drop at the next Olympics, because that it what always happens to host nations the Olympics after. Greece’s 26 medals in Athens as followed by just 4 in Beijing. He also makes an interesting point about how globalization is spreading not just wealth but also Olympic medals. A record 81 different countries won medals in Beijing. As Mihir Bose at the BBC notes, three won medals for the first time in Beijing, and three more won their first individual medals.
Even if you pretend you can keep the politics out of the Games, you can’t keep the economics away.
Following the gold medal table at the Beijing Games is rather like watching a middle distance race in which the front runner has taken a big early lead, but in which his main rival is now chasing him down. Can he hold on for victory? Or will he be pipped at the tape?
China’s lead in the gold medal tally is substantial, but that is because, swimming apart, the early schedule favored its better sports. But the United States is starting to cut back the lead now the track and field events, or the athletics, depending on whose English you speak, are underway.
The prize, of course, is more than mere sporting bragging rights, but we don’t need to rehearse the geopolitical rivalry discussions here.
Those who follow such things tell this Bystander that the U.S. is likely to end up with 45-47 golds and China with 44-46 come Sunday’s final event (boxing). That’s a photo finish in prospect. Liu Xiang’s hamstring, the U.S. 4x100m relay team’s butterfingers or some other disaster or triumph yet to come could be the difference.
Could it even be a dead heat?
Update: Final tally: China 51 golds; U.S. 36. So much for the form experts. Remind me never to back their racing tips.
Before the Games, the authorities said that protests would be permitted in three Beijing parks. How many have been allowed to take place? None, according to Xinhua. It says of the 77 applications received by Beijing’s public security bureau, 74 were withdrawn, two were suspended, and one was vetoed. The majority of the withdrawn applications, Xinhua says, were because the problems they raised — work, health and welfare issues — could be better dealt with by “relevant authorities or departments through consultation”. The vetoed application was turned down because it violated the law on demonstrations and protests.
Now the Olympic Games are underway, Americans are feeling better disposed towards Beijing staging them, according to a new Pew survey.
The number saying it was a “bad decision” to hold the Olympics in China has fallen to 31%, down from 43% when Pew asked the same question in April. That was in the aftermath of the crackdown in Lhasa, when Americans were the most disapproving of the 23 nations surveyed.
The new Pew survey also shows that the share of Americans saying it as a good decision to hold the Games in Beijing has risen by 11 percentage points to 52%.
The unasked question, though, is this change of heart due more to U.S. swimming superstar Michael Phelps than any reappraisal of Sino-American relations? This Bystander rather suspects it is.
Xinhua has published details of the early Sunday morning attacks in Kuqa in Xinjiang, which the agency says left eight dead — seven of whom were attackers — in a dozen bombings.
The largest attack seems to have been a suicide truck bombing of the public security bureau. Two civilians, a security guard and two of the attackers were killed, Xinhua says. A third attacker was captured. Five more attackers died in a firefight in a nearby market. Xinhua says the captured attacker said 15 people were involved in the attacks, which implies seven escaped.
Though the bombs appear to have been crude homemade ones, it is still remarkable that such attacks should have been able to have been launched given the stepped up security in the region since the killing of 16 armed police at a border post last week, and the sweeping up of any suspected pockets of resistance in the months leading up to the Olympic games. But the militants who had previously threatened to attack buses, trains and planes during the two-weeks of the Games still don’t seem to have been able to extend their operations outside Xinjiang.
Wang Wei, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee, called the attacks the work of “East Turkestan terrorists” the appellation applied to Uighur separatists. Wang said no government would tolerate such violence.
Reports from Kuqa in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of early morning explosions and gunfire. Xinhua in a dispatch that speaks of “several” explosions says the area has been sealed off. No reports of casualties yet, or much else by way of detail come to that. Last week 16 armed police were killed in an attack on a border post in the province, for which two Uighurs were detained. First speculation inevitably is that these latest incidents may be more of the same. China regards Uighur separatists as one of the main security threats at the Beijing Olympics. It has cracked down on them in the months leading up to the games, and certainly won’t want this background noise now the Games are underway.