With less than 60 days before the Opening Ceremony on February 4, the International Olympic Committee would clearly love for the attention to be focused on athletes heading into the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing.
The chances of that are slim, though, with recent worldwide focus on the Chinese government’s conduct ahead of hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Following three days of meeting the media after executive board meetings, here are four takeaways from what has developed recently on the Olympic scene.
Diplomatically, Boycotts Don’t Bother the IOC
The U.S., Britain, Canada and others have announced a diplomatic boycott in protest over China’s treatment of Turkic Muslim Uyghurs and other minority groups. Politicians around the world, the WTA Tour and leading tennis players have also raised concerns about the safety of tennis star Peng Shuai, who publicly accused Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, of coercing her into sex three years ago.
IOC President Thomas Bach was grilled about the diplomatic boycotts on Wednesday and instead of trying to persuade countries to change their minds, one gets the feeling that as long as athletes show up to compete in Beijing, the IOC is not going to spend time worrying about if dignitaries accompany them. And given the international tension surrounding China, the case can be made that Bach and the IOC would be fine if additional countries take the same measures as the U.S. and others have.
Bach was irritated when repeatedly asked about the IOC’s role in the Peng saga, knowing worldwide criticism has been lodged against him as bowing to his Chinese hosts’ wishes instead of taking a stand politically. But while he is irritated, Bach also sees taking all the arrows politically as the means to an end should athletes participate in Beijing. Bach’s IOC career has been defined by his experience as an athlete that was not able to participate in the 1980 Games because of a boycott. Like it or not, the IOC will remain resolutely apolitical — the only “but” being should sponsors start leaving the Olympic movement. Only then, it seems, would things change.
Children Behaving Badly
For somebody who usually speaks cautiously, Bach referring to weightlifting and boxing as “the two problem childs in the Olympic movement,” showed the level of annoyance at the two international federations. The list of asks by the IOC of each sport, along with modern pentathlon, was specific and significant.
While not spoken in the same way as weightlifting and boxing, Bach’s displeasure with FIFA’s plans for a biannual World Cup were clear to see. Should FIFA try to double the amount of future World Cups as proposed, eliminating the sport from the Olympics would be a quick and easy decision — though it would be interesting to see if the IOC considers keeping women’s soccer but removing the men’s competition, which seldom draws the game’s biggest stars.
Weightlifting and boxing have been told for years that being in the Games is not a birthright; modern pentathlon, also at danger, is an Olympic original. But with the cap of 10,500 athletes for the Summer Games, potentially taking three historic Olympic sports out and using that space to put in even more “young” sports could intrigue the IOC.
If it wasn’t made clear enough this past summer in Tokyo, the IOC doesn’t care if fans attend an Olympics as long as it can cash billions in worldwide TV rights checks. Beijing has already announced that foreign fans will not be allowed — COVID is the reason cited but certainly political tensions and a desire to exert complete control are an underlying reason.
The question then is how will athletes and official delegations get there? According to The Associated Press, one of the remaining issues organizers have not figured out yet is finding airplane seats for all of the athletes and officials. The organizing committee has “established the principle that chartered and temporary flights will be the main means, supplemented by commercial flights,” Zhang Liang, director of the organizing committee’s Arrival and Departure Center, said Friday.
Zhang said 17 domestic and foreign carriers have signed on to provide temporary flights. When you include the protocols that Chinese authorities have mandated along with the closed-loop system it plans to execute when in Beijing, there could too many hurdles for some accredited foreign visitors to jump through to be at the Games. And you get the feeling that the Chinese organizing committee may be OK with that.
Reading the Future Winter Tealeaves
Yes, there are potentially more than two bidders for both the 2030 and 2034 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games — Vancouver may join with Whistler and four First Nations for a bid — but the widely assumed favorites are Sapporo, Japan, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Both of the potential bidders are previous Olympic hosts and that is a key point of emphasis for the IOC given its newfound focus on sustainability and eliminating the so-called “white elephant” venues. Christophe Dubi, executive director for the Games, said as much when recapping a recent meeting with representatives from the USOPC and Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games. Bach noted Sapporo “practically has it all” ready for venues.
Yes, Vancouver could come up with an attractive bid. But from how the IOC talked about both Sapporo and Salt Lake City over the past week, it feels inevitable that one will be the 2030 host with the other getting 2034. Olympic Games — LA28 and Brisbane in 2032 notable exceptions — are traditionally announced seven years in advance, so a 2023 announcement on at least one future Winter Games seems likely.