Beijing Olympics ‘up in the air’ due to COVID-19, China’s ‘genocide’ of Uighurs

Coronavirus pandemic, human rights issues, Tokyo 2020 uncertainties make the 2022 Winter Games no sure thing.

The jump Ashley Caldwell performed in the aerials final at the Deer Valley Freestyle World Cup earlier this month was fantastic. Launching herself high off the No. 4 ramp, she flipped twice, twisted, then flipped again.

The effort was, by far, the most dynamic and acrobatic of the entire women’s competition. So was the landing.

Carrying too much forward momentum from her final flip, Caldwell’s skis bounced off the landing hill and thrust her forward into yet another flip. That one she landed on her back before sliding, seemingly unhurt but frustrated, to the bottom.

Caldwell attempted the triple flip, her first in competition this season, in part because she knows that’s what it’s going to take to medal at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Yet, with almost exactly a year to go until their planned start, her jump could also serve as a metaphor for those Winter Games — full of excitement and momentum in the run up, only to be followed by an equally spectacular unraveling.

COVID-19 presents the greatest challenge for Beijing, but human rights issues and threats of boycotts have also become rocks in the landing zone.

Late last month, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach lauded China, which has already built all its venues, during an interview with state media.

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic,” Bach said, “the preparations for the games have progressed so smoothly.”

As the games grow nearer, though, the Beijing Olympics are experiencing more turbulence.

Caldwell is a three-time Olympian who has had her share of crashes — including one during practice for the 2018 Olympics in which she separated her collarbone from her shoulder and then still competed. She recognizes things are starting to go sideways, but said she is hoping the Games go on as planned next February.

“We could use an event that brings the world together,” she said, “and the Olympics has always done that.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The dash to disseminate the vaccine

Seven years ago, when the IOC awarded Beijing the 2022 Games, making it the first city selected to host a summer and a winter Olympics, the biggest concern was the snow. The city averages just six days of snow, totaling about an inch, per year. The mountainous regions receive less than two inches annually. But the Chinese have proven to be prolific snowmakers, and the temperatures are cold enough to keep the snow around once it’s on the ground.

If only a cure for COVID could be so easily manufactured.

The coronavirus has killed nearly 2.5 million people across the globe since it was first detected in the city of Wuhan in central China in late 2019. As early as March, it was obvious things would get worse before they got better.

The IOC had little choice but to postpone the Tokyo 2020 games, scheduled to begin last July. Cancellation was also on the table. And, with no vaccine in sight and the record for creating one standing at four years, even Beijing’s Olympics appeared in jeopardy.

“Taking the political side out of it for the moment, say there is a COVID problem in July and August next year in Tokyo,” IOC committee member Dick Pound told Reuters last July. “It is hard to imagine there is not going to be a knock-on effect in the same area five months later.”

But miracles do happen.

It took scientists less than 12 months to take a COVID vaccine from development to distribution, shattering the previous record. Vaccinations began in late 2020, and shortly afterward case numbers and deaths began to decline worldwide.

Those developments caused Pound to tell the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that he was “more confident than I was six months ago” about the future of both the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics.

Still, the creation of the vaccine alone hasn’t erased all health concerns around the 2022 Winter Games.

Questions remain about whether the Chinese will have enough herd immunity to protect them against an influx of 3,000 athletes, plus coaches, staff and media. And whether those foreigners can be protected from contracting the disease while in China and prevented from sparking a new surge when they return home.

So far, just 3% of the Chinese population has received at least one shot. Many of those are in Beijing, which has begun mass deployment of the vaccine for residents ages 18-59. While China has been relying on two national vaccine makers, one has said it expects to produce only enough doses to inoculate a tenth of the country’s population by the end of the year.

A recent outbreak in Hebei Province, host to all 2022 Olympic venues, illustrates how difficult it will be to contain the virus even with vaccines available. New, more easily transmitted variants coming out of Africa and the United Kingdom only add to that challenge.

The IOC has said it will not require athletes competing in Tokyo to be vaccinated, though their movements will be strictly limited. It is believed the same will hold true for Beijing.

Organizers have close to a year to work out those details. Meanwhile, the run-up to Beijing has already started, and it hasn’t been smooth.

Small-scale success

All the Olympic test events for the Chinese venues have been canceled, which means few athletes except those from the host country will know what to expect until the Games begin (an advantage that rankles Caldwell). Other events outside China have also fallen by the wayside.

Two Olympic qualifying events for USA Figure Skating have already been canceled. It is widely believed that March’s world championships, where the number of athletes each country can send to the Games is typically determined, will be lost as well. That won’t likely affect the status of someone like Salt Lake City’s Nathan Chen, who is favored to win gold in men’s singles. It could, however, impact whether he’ll have the company of Vincent Zhou or Jason Brown — who took second and third, respectively, to Chen at the national championships — in China.

“All we can do is just train as if Worlds is going to happen, train as if things are going to happen as they’re supposed to,” Zhou said. “Because if they indeed do happen as they’re supposed to, and we’re kind of lacking because of the uncertainty, then we’re going to be caught unprepared and not be ready to deliver and do the job.”

All of skiing’s world championships have also had to be relocated. Among them, the freestyle championships shifted to March 8-11 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the snowboard and freeski championships moved to Aspen from March 8-16.

Caldwell said her heart goes out to the Summer Olympic hopefuls who find themselves in limbo with just five months before the expected start of those games. She said she’s tried not to think about the Winter Olympics being canceled or postponed.

“I want Tokyo to happen,” Caldwell, 27, said, “so I can believe that Beijing is going to happen.”

Tiger Shaw, president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, said he believes Tokyo will happen. He’s even more confident about Beijing.

Shaw pointed out that hundreds of international athletic events have been held, albeit on a smaller scale, without mass transmission of the coronavirus. The Deer Valley World Cup is one example. Athletes from 15 nations came together for five days of training and competition at the Park City resort, but he said no cases have been traced back to the participants or staff at the event.

What worked at Deer Valley — strict containment, virtually no fans or on-site media and frequent testing — can be scaled up to work for the Olympics, Shaw said. And it can be done now.

“There won’t be as much fanfare and hospitality surrounding the [Tokyo] Olympics as there normally would be. But there’s no question Tokyo can hold the games today if they had to be today,” Shaw said.

He added, “Our hope with Beijing is there’s just such mass inoculation that there’ll still be protocols in place, but everybody will be feeling pretty comfortable.”

That might solve the health issues, but not the humanitarian ones.

Human rights issues a major hurdle

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., introduced a bill calling on the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to request a relocation of the 2022 Olympics or, failing that, to boycott them.

Waltz took issue with the lack of information he said China shared during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. He also was driven to action, he said, by China’s internment and genocide of 1.8 million Uighur Muslims in the northwest province of Xingjiang and by its crackdown on democratic dissent in Hong Kong.

“The Chinese Communist Party has carried out a number of heinous acts in the last year alone,” Waltz said in a press statement, “that should disqualify them from hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.”

With his proposal, Waltz became just on of the most recent voices clamoring for nations, or at least advertisers and officials, to boycott the Beijing Olympics. Government officials in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom have joined with more than 180 human rights groups in making a similar plea. In addition to the other abuses, they point to forced labor camps in Tibet and aggressive posturing toward Taiwan.

So far, no country has agreed to a boycott and the Olympic committees for all three countries have argued a boycott would unfairly penalize athletes while not effectively bringing change. The last major boycotts came in 1980, when the USA stayed away from the Summer Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets and their allies retaliated by shunning the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Shaw isn’t yet counting out a boycott, however, saying “I think the only chance to derail [Beijing’s Olympics] is political at this point.” But he warned that not attending the games would have long-lasting financial ramifications.

“The impact on the Olympic sports and the movement within the United States, while it might make an effective political statement, would be devastating to sport,” Shaw said, noting the games generate most of the funding for Olympic sports programs. “It would be devastating. It was in ’80 and it was ’84 with the Russian team.”

Coming under fire for human rights abuses isn’t new territory for China. It faced similar criticism for similar issues when it hosted the Summer Games in 2008. At that time, the government promised to make changes. This time, according to The New York Times, it won’t be taking that step. Rather, its leaders have threatened sanctions against any country that does not participate.

The IOC also does not plan to take any action. In a statement, it said it “must remain neutral on all global political issues.”

U.S. athletes may be able to make their own statement about the transgressions if the Beijing Olympics actually happen. USOPC officials announced in December that, in light of the civil unrest that took hold of the country last year, they would not sanction athletes for “peaceful and respectful demonstrations.” Athletes may, however, still be dealt penalties by the IOC, which has a longstanding policy against athletes making political statements of any kind while they are at the games.

“Now comes the hard work of determining and defining and ideally asking the IOC to be clear about their rules and the ramifications of those rules in advance,” said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Nick Page flies over a jump during a training run before qualifying at the World Cup men's freestyle moguls skiing competition, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at Deer Valley.

Athletes keep their focus, faith

Even with all the elements stacked against successfully pulling off the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing has a reputation and history for making events happen against all odds. That’s what the American athletes are hanging their hopes on.

“Right now, it’s so far out ahead of us that we’re all banking on it happening,” said Nick Page, a Park City native who is well-situated to represent Team USA in moguls. “I mean, there’s the possibility that it doesn’t. And that would be heartbreaking. But we’re still kind of keeping what’s in front of us right now, our current World Cups, as the priority and just knowing that the Olympics will be there when it’s time to go tackle those.”

Caldwell said she will keep working on her triple flips. Her friend Chris Lillis, who competes on the men’s aerials team, has set a goal to become the first American to perform a quintuple twist in competition since Jeret “Speedy” Peterson took silver in the 2010 Olympics with his signature “Hurricane.” Lillis would love nothing more than a chance to pay homage to Peterson next February in Beijing.

Until the 2022 Olympics are officially canceled, the world will keep spinning, and so will the U.S. athletes.

“Like with all things,” Lillis said, “everything’s up in the air right now.”